Hope, Rising

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2: 1-12; NRSV)

The first constellation I learned to recognize in the night sky was Orion – the Hunter. Most of the others made no sense to me (how could anyone think Taurus looked like a bull?), but Orion I could see. The four corner stars marked the outline of the hunter’s body; the three aligned stars in the middle were his belt; and those fuzzy stars just below the belt were the sword at his side.

Only many years later did I learn that, in some parts of the world, the three stars of Orion’s belt are also called the Three Kings – because during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, they march steadily across the sky from East to West, like the Magi on their way to Bethlehem.

Of course, the Magi were not actually kings; as much as medieval Christians liked the image of foreign kings bowing down before their personal savior, there is nothing in the gospel to suggest they were royalty. Matthew, from whom we receive this part of the Christmas story, never makes these visitors out to be kings. They are called, simply, Magi. Persian astrologers. Students of the stars.

Modern-day students of the stars teach us that the star just south of the “Three Kings” — the “sword” that hangs from Orion’s belt – is not a single star at all, but rather a nebula, a great cosmic cloud within which thousands of new stars are forming. It has been described as a stellar nursery, a celestial cocoon. The Orion Nebula is some 1300 light years away from us; meaning, that it takes more than a millennium, for the light of those new stars to reach us.

By the time it reaches earth, that light has been a long time coming.

The stars reveal to us the ancient history of the cosmos. When astronomers look to the most distant edges of the universe, they are seeing the light of stars that burned long ago.  When the Magi looked to the stars, they were studying a text more ancient than the Prophets.

It was against this backdrop of ancient light, that they detected a new light. A newborn star. And seeing it, they pursued it. They asked Herod: “Where is the newborn King? For we have seen his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

I love this translation. Some other versions of the Gospel say simply, we have seen his star in the East. But the Greek word Matthew uses means, literally, rising – as in, sunrise. We have seen his star at its rising.

I used to picture this new star as somehow brighter and bigger than all the others – brightest and best of the sons of the morning, as the old hymn goes – but I have begun to doubt that. If it were that obvious, then surely everyone would have been talking about it. But it took these devoted star-gazers, these students of the night sky, to notice it. So now I imagine it as just one star among many, hardly noticeable in the throng. Only the Magi recognized it for what it was: a new light in the old sky. A sign of hope, rising.

We live in time when there are many things on the rise, most of them troubling. You know what these are; you can name them yourselves. Gun violence is on the rise. Hate crimes are on the rise. Anti-semitism is on the rise. Global temperatures are on the rise. World hunger is on the rise. Extinction rates are on the rise. Wildfires are on the rise. And, as the past week has made evident, international tensions are on the rise as well.

In light of this reality, in the glare of these headlines, it can be hard to see any signs of hope. Any new star on the horizon seems pale and dim, compared to the fires burning here on earth.

The Magi, though, took a long view. They trained their eyes on the night sky; they grew accustomed to the ancient light of the heavens. And they saw there a sign, made visible only by the darkness; a tiny light, on the horizon. But it was enough, to make them leave their homes, travel great distances, offer their treasures, and ultimately risk their lives in disobedience to Herod — all in pursuit of that new star.

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

We gather here, today, to honor the Magi. Here, following their example, we take the long view. We look at the present, against the backdrop of an ancient light. And we search, together for new light on the rise.

This is the quest of the Magi – not merely to find the new star, but to follow it.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, I offer you this charge:  Keep watch. Search for hope at its rising — and when you see it, pursue it. Offer your greatest treasure in its service. And do not be afraid to take a new road home.


1. The Orion Nebula, birthplace of stars. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI.
2. Orion on film, by Matthew Spinelli

Sermon by Rev. Liza B. Knapp, January 5, 2020,
for the First Church of Deerfield, MA.

What child is this?

An Advent Reflection on Isaiah 11: 1-10

What do we dare hope for? It’s an interesting expression, isn’t it?  Daring to hope. But how else to describe this vision, of a peace beyond our wildest imagination?

We don’t know exactly when these verses were written; the book of Isaiah contains material that ranges over a century or so of ancient Jewish history. Possibly this passage comes from sometime in the eight century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Assyria laid siege to Jerusalem. Possibly it comes from sometime in the seventh century BC, when the neighboring kingdom of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. Isaiah’s people were not accustomed to justice, or peace. Yet in these verses, the prophet offers them a bold vision of hope, based in his faith that God was not finished yet.

Isaiah begins with an image of new growth from a felled tree, a shoot from the stump of Jesse — Jesse being the father of King David. This new king of Israel will usher in a reign of justice:

With righteousness he will judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

As if this wasn’t already more than his people would dare to hope, Isaiah’s language then explodes into an even more extravagant vision — a Peaceable Kingdom in which conflict and enmity are ended, even between predator and prey; a world in which children will be free from all peril:

The cow and the bear shall graze,
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

This, Isaiah tells us, is God’s plan for us. Nothing less than this.

Think about this for a moment, and ask yourself, which seems like a more achievable form of security: a world in which the lion shall eat straw like the ox, or a world from which lions have been eradicated?

Before pursuing my call to the ministry, I was an ecology professor, and I can tell you from a purely biological perspective, there’s no way a lion is going to eat straw. It’s not just a matter of instinct; it’s a matter of digestive enzymes and dental structure. It’s just not going to happen. On the other hand, we humans have come pretty close to successfully driving lions to extinction.

The fact is, that we do routinely fantasize about killing off predators in our midst, or at least fencing them out. But do we dare to imagine a world in which foes are not vanquished, but reconciled? Or is such a world as unimaginable to us as a lion eating hay?

Several Christmases ago, a well-meaning relative sent my then two-and-a-half year old daughter Phoebe a picture book as a gift. It was the story of Henny Penny. Now, for those of you who may need your memories refreshed, Henny Penny is the tale of a chicken who, having been struck on the head by an acorn, becomes convinced that the sky is falling. She gathers together her friends – Turkey Lurkey, Loosy Goosey, and the other barnyard fowl – and they all set off to warn the countryside. On the way, they meet Foxy Loxy. The fox tricks the birds into entering his den, whereupon he promptly gobbles them up.

This particular version of the story was accompanied by remarkable illustrations, collages of photographs in which the animals appeared both realistic and full of personality. So when we turned the page, and there was the image of the fox, gleefully devouring Henny Penny’s friends, my daughter burst into tears. Deep, grief-stricken tears.

You see, to Phoebe, it was not the lion eating hay that was unimaginable; it was the fox eating chickens.

As adults, we have become accustomed to the world as it is. We learn to be realistic in our expectations, and so we avoid the cruelty of disappointment, the grief of loss. We don’t get our hopes up. But then we come face to face with a child. And we remember what hope is like. We remember, not how the world is, but how it should be.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Who is this child? Who is this child, so at home in this unfamiliar, longed-for world?

In some sense, this child is Phoebe — or any other child.  The child that ushers in this peaceable kingdom is every child. Because, when we come face to face with a child, any child, we remember what hope is like, and we remember who hope is for.

But this child also recalls to us one, particular child. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have seen in Isaiah’s prophecies a foreshadowing of the reign of Christ. When we read these scriptures, we see Jesus: not only in the ideal king, who will judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity, but also in this little child, leading the calf and the lion home together.

And it strikes me, what an odd thing it is, that we so often picture the founder of our faith as a child. As often as we see Christ on the cross, still we see him as the baby in the manger. It’s a fairly distinctive feature of our faith. How often does one speak of the baby Mohamed, or the Buddha Child? Yet Christ is for us, somehow, always a child.

Now, some might dismiss this as sentimentality, and it is undoubtedly easy to love a baby who hasn’t yet spoken to us of things we would rather not hear. But I think there is also something deeper going on here.

These verses are part of our worship at this time of year, because they capture the spirit of Advent – that time of year when we become children again, and remember what hope is like. For Advent is not just a season of remembrance; it is a season of anticipation. We sometimes tell our children that on Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, but this isn’t quite right. For it is not Christ’s birthday that we await during Advent. It is Christ’s birth. Christ was not just born in Palestine, two thousand years ago. Christ is about to be born for us, right now, right here. Christ is our hoped-for child, who teaches us to hope again.

God is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?

A child is coming, to bring us hope.


(sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ, 11.29.2015)

(photo: detail of The Peaceable Kingdom, painting by Edward Hicks)

Revolutionary Repentance

“What then should we do?” — Luke 3:2-18

In the first chapter of Genesis, God tells the newly created humans to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.”

I think we can safely cross that one off our to-do list.

When Jesus was born, there were fewer than half a billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere was less than 300 ppm – as it had been for hundreds of thousands of years. Today, there are over seven billion people on earth, and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is over 398 ppm.

Now, here is a problem our ancestors never saw coming. So what does our faith tradition have to say to those of us who live in this brave new world of overpopulation and industrialization, of climate change and environmental degradation? When we read in the headlines of 500-year droughts and raging wildfires, of melting ice-caps and vanishing species; what scriptures do we turn to? Where do we find resonance? Where do we find hope?

Thursday morning, I was among the millions of people who tuned in to watch Pope Francis as he spoke to the United States Congress. In the middle of that speech, he told the lawmakers, “I call for a courageous and responsible effort to redirect our steps and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference. I am sure.”

This is the sort of language that caused Fox commentator Greg Gutfield to describe the Pope as the most dangerous person on the planet. Dangerous, because he calls upon us to change our course. Francis has asked for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution” to liberate both the planet, and the planet’s poor — and he talks as if he believes it could happen.

In the past year I have been struck by the fact that many of the same people who used to deny the possibility of climate change, are now saying that climate change is already here and there’s nothing we can do about it. One minute it was too soon to tell; the next minute it was too late to act. We seem to have jumped straight from complacency to resignation, without any room in between for urgency. Without any room for hope.

But here is the Pope, claiming that we not only should, but could, do something. Here is the Pope, expressing both urgency and hope.

Of course, there are some who might point out that the Pope is not an authority on climate science, any more than Donald Trump is an authority on pediatric vaccinations. But the Pope makes no claim to know the science better than the scientists. His information comes from published research, not special revelation. But his urgency, and his hope – where do they come from?

Well, I can’t speak for Francis, but let’s go looking for ourselves:

John the Baptist appears at the River Jordan, fresh from the wilderness. He wears a coat of camel’s hair, he eats locusts and wild honey,he is a nature freak if ever we saw one. He stands there, with his feet in the flowing water, and says: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

I suspect that for most of us, a call to repentance wouldn’t really qualify “good news.” In fact, public calls to repentance often produce something of a backlash. No one wants to be publicly taken to task for their errors. It makes us feel ashamed, or defensive, or both. We don’t want to hear that we are “to blame” for global warming and so we tune out the science that makes us feel guilty.

But the word, “repentance” – or rather, the Biblical word metanoia – that word does not mean, “to feel ashamed.” The Biblical word metanoia means to change. To change our hearts and minds, and to change our lives, to change direction. Or, as Pope Francis puts it: “to redirect our steps.”

A better translation might be, “revolution.”

And so it is with John the Baptist; when the people ask John, “What then shall we do?” he doesn’t tell them to fast or to do penance or say five hail Marys . Instead, he tells them: If you have two coats, share one. If you have extra food, share that. If you have power, stop using it for your own profit.

John the Baptist comes along, wearing his cruelty-free clothing, and eating his macrobiotic diet, and calls the powerful to repent. No wonder Herod decided the John was the most dangerous person in Judea. He was calling for nothing less than a “bold cultural revolution.”

“Revolution” may seem like a strong word, but the truth is that repentance is always revolutionary, that hope is always revolutionary. “For who hopes for what he already has?” So asks the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Such revolutionary hope, Paul believed, was not confined to the human race, but was shared by all creation:

“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.”

Paul may never have envisioned a world with over 7 billion people, or a climate endangered by human activity, but he understood that the redemption of creation and the redemption of the human race were inseparable. And he had hope, that such redemption was possible. A hope based not on a clear vision of the future, but on a firm grounding in the past. God had liberated Israel from Egypt; God had liberated Jesus from the grave; and just as miraculously, God had liberated Paul  from his own prejudice and hatred. If God could do all this, then surely, God might liberate creation as well.

God of creation:
Fill us with the hope of Paul,
and the urgency of John.
May we believe the good news,
and repent.

PHOTO is of street art installation by Isaac Cordal; click here for the source, and for more images of his extraordinary work (blog text is in French, but the images need no words…)

TEXT from sermon originally preached by Rev. Liza B. Knapp at Belchertown United Church of Christ, September 27, 2015.