Stars and Stables
December 23 2018
Christmas would not be Christmas without the star OVER the stable of Bethlehem. There are only two nativity stories in the Gospels. The Gospel of Luke tells of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, who will be the mother of John the Baptist. And the pregnancy of Mary. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in order to report for the Roman census. Then the birth of the baby in the stable, the shepherds rushing to the manger, the heavenly choir singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo.
Matthew on the other hand tells about the three Magi who see a new bright and mysterious star rising in the east. They make the long journey to Palestine where they are intercepted by the venal ruler, Herod. And Herod–and now and I can just see him twirling his moustache, his dark eyes dancing about–Herod tells the three Magi: “When you find the child come and tell me so I can come and worship him.” You bet.
Some wag speculated on what would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of three wise men..
They would have asked directions,
arrived on time,
helped deliver the baby,
cleaned the stable,
made a casserole,
and brought practical gifts.
But what they would have said when they left?
“Did you see the sandals Mary was wearing with that gown?”
“You know that baby doesn’t look anything like Joseph!”
“Can you believe that they let all of those disgusting animals in the house?”
“I heard that Joseph isn’t even working right now!”
“And that donkey that they were riding has seen better days too!”
“Want to bet on how long it will take until you get your casserole dish back?”
Symbolically the wise men suggest the significance of the Christ child to the world at large. Though born in Israel Jesus Christ has come for all humanity. Matthew told this story with an O.T. prophecy in the back of his mind: “Gentiles shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising (Isaiah 60:3)
But beyond the symbolism of this story the reality is that Magi embarked on a long, dusty journey following the star until it stood over the place where the young child lay. And what a come down that had to have been. Looking for a king they find a baby. Anticipating a palace they find a stable.
Let’s put on our imagination hats today and think about what the star represents and what the stable represents.
The star represents a vision that reaches us from outside from beyond, from above. “Hitch your wagon to a star” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1862 in his essay on Civilization. If Emerson were writing today he probably would change that line to “Hitch your SUV to a star.” Maybe it would best be put by simply saying, “Hitch your life to a star.” Look up, pick out a star, a goal, a project, and follow it wherever it leads.
The stable, on the other hand, represents the harsh realities to which our visions often lead. We Christians romanticize the stable. Really, it was a place that stank– dark and dank and depressing. What a disappointment it had to have been for Joseph and Mary for the first night of their child’s life in such an unappealing place.
But this is the way our visions often end up. This is the way life comes to us, a mixture of stars and stables. And we spend our years trying to understand and to reconcile the two.
So let’s plunge a bit deeper into these two realities, the star and the stable, and see what they might mean for us.
The star. Many of us grew up believing we could be anything we set our hearts to. After all, this is America, the land of opportunity. “You can do anything You can be anything as long as you work hard. And keep at it.” Failure,” writes Og Mandino, “will never overcome me if my determination to succeed is strong enough.”
That’s an appealing axiom , but I thought about it one day when I was driving from my home in Lichfield Park to the White Tanks and saw a group of field workers harvesting watermelons. No matter how hard they worked , no matter if they doubled their quota in a day, and doubled it again the next day, they would never get far beyond that field. What I wouldn’t give to be able to ask each of them, “What is your guiding star.” And my hunch is that you have to have a certain modicum of privilege before you can even begin to think about a guiding star.
I look back about the young men who were in seminary with me. (There were no women in my graduating class.) They sallied forth to change the world, to come into a local church and shake it and shape it so that it was a transforming agent for the congregation and the community. The gates of hell, so they thought, would not prevail against it.
But alas! A few years later they have been laboring away in a small church in a podunk town. The church members are petty and vindictive. These pastors sadly realize that their little parish is a dull reflection of the status quo. They have followed their star but it has led to a stable. And those of us who have been in the local church fully understand that every parish, including this one, is a mix of grime and glory.
So what should we do, those of us who recognize that our star sometimes leads us to a stable? Should we give up? Should we conclude that our imagination and vision are destined to be smashed upon the anvil of history?
In my lifetime I have known many people who are afflicted with too much stable and not enough star. They are forever looking on the dark side of life. They are disbelieving, cynical, and doubting. They have never stood in the light of a grand vision that gives meaning to their years.
Let me tell you. It’s tough to live in this world without some kind of vision, however modest. Do you know that verse from Proverbs 29? “Without a vision the people perish. And we understand that, because if you don’t know where you are going any road will take you there.
Wouldn’t we love to have been privy to the conversation of the three magi on their way back to their homes in Persia? Were they disappointed in what they found? Did they regret the long journey? Or were they just confused not really understanding why the star led them to that stable. My guess is that within their lifetime they never understood it, never knew anything about the baby who would someday grow up and be acknowledged as the Savior of the world.
And more than once in my lifetime–and I suspect yours–we have felt that the bright star has led us to some disappointing stable, but we will never truly know until we, from the vantage point of the other side of this life, look down from heaven and review the whole sweep of our years.
Without a vision, without a star to lead us, we perish. I think about particularly in our retirement years. I can’t for the life of me understand how someone can retire and then spend their days playing golf, or bridge or traveling. I don’t want to embarrass our friends Dick and Ruth Langford, but here they are in their 70’s having started a small organization in 2011 that has mushroomed into something incredible. 3500 school bags packed since last August.
This leads to the take home question for the day. What is the star overhead for you? Where is God leading you to at this point in your life?
The other morning I was at Ground Control coffee where I go nearly every morning to drink a latte on work on our bulletin and my sermon for a week. A young woman was sitting near me, working away at her laptop. She got up to get a refill of her coffee and came back by me and asked, “What are you working on? A book?”
“No, a sermon” I said, and then I told her what I do.
“What’s the sermon about?” she asked.
“It’s called Stars and Stables,” I replied and then I told her what the star represents and what the stable represents.
And then I asked her, “What do you do?
She’s a nurse, works two days a week at Banner Estrella and teaches two days a week at Grand Canyon University.
Then I asked her, “What’s is your guiding star?”
She said she wants to go back to school and become a psychiatric p.a. . She has so many friends and acquaintances with psychiatric problems, depression, p.s.t.d, addictions, and on and on.
Then I asked her “Why this?” And she said that a friend once told her that she needed to immerse herself into the pain of the world to discover her true vocation. Her friend said, “Find a need and fill it. Find a hurt and heal it.”
I said to her, “You know, that will preach.” And she said, “I too am a Christian.”
This sermon was inspired by a sermon preached at the Riverside Church, New York City by Dr. Ernest T. Campbell entitled “Of Star and Stables.” December 22, 1968. As a young pastor I thought he was the finest preacher I had ever heard.