“Signs of Love”
Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17
Before I speak about stars and wonder, mystery and faith, seeking and following. . . Before I invite us all to consider what we are looking for and how far we would go and what we would be willing to do to find it, I want to say a word about Gerry Peterson.
Gerry passed away in 2020. For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him, he was the beloved husband of our dear Doris Peterson for 67 years. At the time of his death, Gerry had been an active member of First Church for more than 50 years, and for what was really his entire life he was a scientist—a distinguished physicist and professor.
I got to thinking about Gerry while working on this sermon because, once again, I was planning to speak of something about which I know very little and understand even less. As I considered this, I remembered the time (years ago) when I mentioned the recently discovered Higgs boson, the so-called “God particle” that gives other particles their mass and is the foundation of all matter. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have Gerry tell me that, even though I didn’t understand it, I had spoken of it correctly.
Gerry was somewhat evangelical about his science. And so it was that the next day I received a delightful email, a lengthy missive that touched on everything from the Superconducting Super Collider and the Big Bang to the anthropic principle, which, according to Gerry, is the place where science and religion overlap.
The thing I loved most about that email, 95 percent of which I did not understand, was Gerry’s love and care in writing it, and this one line, which appeared about two-thirds of the way in:
“Now let’s consider some basic nuclear physics, greatly simplified.”
(Love you and miss you, Gerry!)
And I hope you all will be as generous and forgiving as Gerry was as, once again, I expound briefly on something I don’t understand:
Which would, in this case, be stars—what they tell us and what they show us.
Our beloved Epiphany story features a star that rose in the East and the wise ones who followed it. According to the story, the magi believed this was a special star, a star spawned by the birth of a baby who would become a king. They believed this star would lead them not only to a very special child but also to the frontier of a whole new world.
Now, I don’t want to be overly literal about this. At the same time, I believe there is a deep, liberating truth in our faith stories that goes way beyond the details.
So here’s the thing: As wise as the magi were, as attentive as they were to constellations and movements of the night sky, we know much more about stars than they did.
We now know, for example, thanks to the theories of Einstein and the images captured by the James Webb telescope, that gravity bends light. We now know, thanks to science, that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, which, if converted to a light year, comes out to almost six trillion miles.
What does this mean?
Well, on the scientific level it means that it takes about eight minutes for light from the sun to reach us. That the light from Sirius, a star relatively close to Earth, is four years old when we see it. That it takes seven thousand years for the light of the Eagle Nebula, a cluster of stars in the constellation Serpens, to brighten our sky.
What is my point?
That the so-called star that rose in the east had begun shining long before Jesus was born and the magi looked up into the darkness and saw something new. That the bright light the magi saw and followed—like the mysterious power that generated it—had been in the works for a very long time.
What made that old star new, bright, and life-changing was that the wise ones—people who spent their lives seeking truth and meaning—noticed it and opened their hearts to its power. We talk and sing about that star 2,000 years later because the magi looked beyond their immediate surroundings, listened for something more, and—when they saw and heard it—dropped everything and followed their hearts, looking for God and letting nothing stop them.
Which is to say: Whatever shining star, burning bush, illuminating dream, sweet love, or other mystery finally catches our attention, opens our hearts, and calls our name is—as likely as not—just one more eons-old manifestation of God’s love and grace, which forever has been and always will be at work in the world.
Which is to ask: Are we on the lookout?
And: When we see the signs of God’s love at work, will we let them change us? Will we let love heal us? Will we let God’s Love With Us give us more life than we could have ever imagined? In a world defined by the lust for personal power and wealth, will we take a different road?
The signs of the Holy are everywhere. If we were to open the eyes of our hearts we might see that there are more revelations of God’s love in our lives than there are stars in the sky. The ways in which God’s tenderness is revealed to us—shining brightly, whispering softly, blessing us beyond measure, comforting us in the wilderness, delivering us from some pain or catastrophe, knocking on the door again and again, offering a physics lesson by email—are endless.
In the Epiphany story, the sign happens to be a star. But the revelations and manifestations of God’s love started long before that star rose in the east and they didn’t end with the gobsmacked magi returning home by another road.
They never end. They are everywhere and always with us.
And there is another love revelation we are remembering and celebrating today: the one made manifest in the shallow brown waters of the Jordan River. The child sought by the magi has become a grown-up God seeker. Like the magi, he leaves his home and travels through the wilderness to find what he’s looking for, to try to discern if the call he feels on his life comes from ego or desperation or from God.
Like the magi, he must humble himself—getting down into that murky water and asking the wild, locust-eating, fire-and-brimstone-preaching John the Baptist to wash him clean. And so he does.
And when he comes up from the water, he sees and feels God’s Spirit and hears a voice like no other, saying, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Friends, we don’t necessarily have to go on a long journey to find what we’re looking for. If you’d like to hear the same words Jesus did, if you long to know yourself beloved by God, all you need to do is open your heart, look around, and receive all that is good and beautiful. All you have to do is pay attention to those things that bring tears to your eyes and joy to your heart, those people and causes that call your name and speak to you in the night.
And all you have to do this morning is come here to me after taking Communion.
I’ll be here with some love and some water—which, includes a few drops from the Jordan River—to offer you a special blessing, that we might all remember that we are God’s beloved, and with us God is well pleased.