I thought I’d share some thoughts on the sermon I heard yesterday morning, delivered with conviction from our Wyoming CRC pulpit by Rev. J. Hellinga. Not a précis, just some musings. I don’t think he’ll mind. Good preachers want you to not just hear their message, but to think about, make it your own, apply it in some way. Hopefully I won’t garble his points as I share … :-). I didn’t take notes, so I’m going by memory. This is the condensed version, the “interpretation according to Cathy.”
Pastor John began by asserting the value of the various gospel viewpoints, something I also just read about in an excellent Banner article by Meg Jenista. Each gospel adds a unique and complementary angle to the Christmas story. One event, multiple refractions, like a prism. Today’s sermon would come from Matthew 2 which provides, said Pastor John, a critical balance to Luke 2. While the narrative of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes offers the humble view, Matthew’s version reminds us that this is also, without question, a royal birth. The Magi come seeking a King.
Pastor Hellinga spent a few minutes discussing the star. He said it really didn’t matter if it was a star or a comet or an alignment of planets. It might be interesting to discuss and investigate what kind of celestial body it was, but that’s tangential to the main point which is that creation announced the birth of its king. He quoted Romans 1, referring to God’s invisible presence in creation, and also mentioned the Psalms where the heavens “declare the glory of God.”
The pastor identified the Magi as learned men from Iraq, astrologers, but not astronomers. He suggested that they propounded a pseudo-science and that astrology today continues to be a popular false spirituality. I agree that astrology is something that is neither science nor religion and should be identified for the empty thing it is. However, I’ve always thought of the Magi as genuine astronomers, true scholars as measured by the standards of their day. So I’d like to know more about them and do further research and reading. Pastor Hellinga shared one idea about the Magi, though, that really grabbed my attention. I’ve wondered, now and then, why the Magi connected a new star to the arrival of a King. That assumption always seemed kind of random to me. Why did the star have to signal that? Why not a bountiful year? Or an upcoming victory in a military campaign? I guess I always assumed it was an arbitrary divine intervening – a vision or intuition or revelation – that the Holy Spirit must have provided. But Pastor Hellinga noted that Iraq was formerly known as Persia and, before that, as Babylon. So during the exile and captivity, while Israel sat and wept, they also, no doubt, planted the seed. Or perhaps it was the daring of Daniel and his faithful band. But the Messianic promise was whispered even there, in hostile and heathen lands, for centuries. This struck me as remarkable, both for the fact that I never connected the dots in this way before, but also because of how absolutely fitting it was. I wanted to jump up and say, “Hallelujah!” My mind jumped to the passage in Luke where grizzled old Simeon, holding a tender-fleshed baby, praised God for “your salvation, prepared in the sight of all people.” It was like the smooth joining of a ball and socket, or the satisfactory click of a key opening a door. The salvation was “for all people.” The Magi had been linked into the salvation chain long before either they or Simeon were born. The Jews and the unclean Gentiles were coupled while still enemies, the chosen and the to-be-chosen. The Magi’s presence in the story was not so mysterious and surprising after all, but deftly foreshadowed in OT events. (Pastor Hellinga also pointed out briefly, but refreshingly, that God works in the unholy places and people as much as in the holy. God uses the wise men from heathen nations as well as characters from within Israel.)
Ok, back to the sermon. Pastor Hellinga noted that Herod had to ask his advisors where the promised king was to be born. They consulted the Scriptures and found the prophecy in Micah that predicted Bethlehem would be the birthplace. Here, said the pastor, is where creation’s word, the star, is backed up by the “written” word. He assured us that God’s creation will never contradict God’s revealed Word. Both emanate from God. We should remain calm and not get disputatious about these matters.
Pastor Hellinga went on to talk about the Magi finding the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus himself, in a house in Bethlehem. They worshipped and adored him. I loved his progression through the sermon, the triad of Words: the creational word, the scriptural word, and the incarnate word. But, finally, and even better (kudos to Pastor John!) he brought us to the house we were in that very morning, the Wyoming CRC. The Word of God is here, too, he reminded us, and, like the Magi, we must worship and adore him, our Saviour and Lord.
A sermon that made an impression. Taught me something new and pointed to paths for further exploration.
After the service, I was on coffee duty. It was a treat to hand the steaming cups to my fellow parishioners, to shake their hands and say “Merry Christmas.” There were people present from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the Netherlands, the United States and probably a host of other places. As I exited the sanctuary a bit early to serve the coffee, “Ere Zij God/Glory to God” was ringing around me in both Dutch and English. A fitting doxology. As Simeon had predicted: “For glory to your people Israel” and “For revelation to the Gentiles.” All are bathed in the glory. All belong.