Icicles and Stars (A Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25) #pittsfield #berkshires

Sermon for 12/18/22

Matthew 1:18-25

Last Wednesday, we were between storms. Icicles had started forming. The sky was clear. For all the wonder and excitement of this time of year, it can also be a season of rushing about. Last Wednesday night was one of those times I was going from this to that, and my mind was spinning with everything I hadn’t yet done or needed to do when someone asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks.

“Do you think that stars or icicles are more beautiful?”

Everything slowed down. It felt as though the question grabbed me by my shoulders and made me stand still. I looked at the sky and saw all the sparkling stars for the first time that night. I looked at the crystal icicles hanging from the trees and gutters, reflecting the different colored Christmas lights. I looked at the sky again, letting my eyes adjust to an emerging, sparkling sky.

“ I don’t know,” I replied. “They are both so beautiful.”

We just stood there, slowly looking back and forth between the two with reverent, holy awe. A car or two went by, and a dog barked in the distance, but we just stood there. We just stood there looking back and forth between the sky and the icicles. Regardless of everything else that might have felt like it needed to be done, there was no better way to spend that time.

When I pay attention to the heart of Advent, there is a similar effect. As a pastor, this is one of the times of year that, in some ways, feels busier and more weighted than other parts of the year. However, at the same time, I feel fortunate. It’s part of my personal and professional faith life to take a look at a text like the one we read today and have my focus change from all that has been built on top of Christmas. This year, I feel a lot of gratitude for being able to walk through these texts with all of you. It’s an icicles and stars kind of season where we look back and forth between what is close and small compared to what is vast and immense. Today’s text from Matthew is a perfect example.

Today’s text, and the verses that come before it, go into a lot of detail. Matthew starts off the genealogy of Jesus; admittedly, it is not riveting reading. Learning your family roots can be interesting but learning the family roots of someone else is less so. Even the scripture specifically for today is tempting to mentally skim because we’ve heard so much of it before. Even though the details, in and of themselves, are somewhat stunning and hard to get our all too-logical minds around, most of us have heard them before. Even though the details counter biology and medical reality, these details are almost ordinary. 

Plus, these stories seem in the background of the much louder crooning of Bing Crosby singing about a “White Christmas” or the gifts we have yet to buy or trying not to figure out how we’ll pay for everything. It seems in the background of political division, religious infighting, environmental despair, and war.

So, it becomes easy to forget that the scripture we read for today and some of the scriptures we’ll read over the coming weeks are actually about all of that, in a way. This scripture was written about a time of Roman occupation and, sometimes, violent divisions among our Jewish spiritual ancestors. This was written during a time of great economic insecurity for many, as the divisions between the “haves” and the “haves nots” was intense and increasing. This was written when at least some people were trying to figure out how to pay the bills, survive the divisions between neighbors and family, and have hope despite it all.

These are scriptures that, if we allow them, grab us by the shoulders and tell a story of a different time that is about this time, too. Because the genealogy in the first part of Matthew is the story of a remarkable group of people, each person mentioned would be like a memory chest full of stories, history, and meaning for those listening to these words. They knew the stories that made this genealogy more than a list of names, and by going through it, the writer of Matthew was saying this; all of these stories conspired together to create the same story I am about to tell you today. This moment wasn’t just a moment breaking out of days of normality but a story that pointed towards the culmination of history.

To those hearing this story, the scandal of the story would have been apparent. Mary and Joseph were not yet at a point in their relationship when pregnancy would have been acceptable. In fact, by some accounts, it could have resulted in a deadly punishment for Mary. Yet, Joseph – son of Jacob, grandson of Matthan, and descendant of queens, kings, and founders of the faith like Issac and Abraham – Joseph had a dream in which an angel came and called him to save Mary from shame and to adopt this child, yet unborn, as his own. At this moment, Joseph’s genealogy became the genealogy of Jesus.

The story continues to build from this moment. Wise men who studied stars more than icicles saw Jesus’ birth celebrated in the cosmos and wanted to honor him. They came to ask the old king where to find this new king. King Herod fake-smiled and said, “I don’t know but when you find out, let me know so I can celebrate with you!” while at the same time devising a genocidal plan to make sure that his rule was not threatened. The Gospel of Matthew is one we’ll be taking a look at quite a bit over the coming year, and it goes back and forth between the microscopic details and the macroscopic perspective.

To the writer of Matthew and for us in the Christmas season, Jesus was God’s answer to the problems of that moment and this one and the paradoxes of history. Yet, at the same time, this answer is simple and seems impossible to take in. Through Jesus, God answered the problem of oppression with the call to center our lives around the oppressed:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

It was the answer to problems of that moment and this one.

Through Jesus, God didn’t just call for peace among us but the elimination of enemies, not through violence but through love because the paradox of “Love your enemies” is that you can’t. Love transforms our relationship with an enemy into a non-enemy. It was the answer to problems of that moment and this one.

Through Jesus, God called us not to distance ourselves from those suffering or in pain but to recognize how our presence could help provide some kind of healing. It was the answer to problems of that moment and this one.

The writer of Matthew shares more and more of these stories and words of wisdom that speak to the vastness of God’s hope and love that came to us embodied in the one called Jesus. For some of us who grew up listening to and learning about these stories, it can be easy to rush right through them. For those of you for whom these stories are new and, admittedly, strange, it can be easy just to set them aside.

In the scripture we read for today, we’re being asked to look at beautiful icicles under a vast and beautiful sky full of stars. Last Wednesday was a wonderful moment that will stick with me for a long time. I cannot guarantee that it won’t come back as a sermon illustration at some other point. 

If I had looked closely enough at those icicles and that sky, I might have noticed something spectacular. If I had looked closely enough, maybe the Christmas lights would have faded into the background, and I would have seen the reflection of the stars. Maybe the stars and the icicles were both so beautiful because of the light they shared. Amen.

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