John 1:6-9; 19-28; 1Thessalonians 5:16-24
If we’re lucky and there is no cloud cover, on December 21, the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, we will get to see something like the Star of Bethlehem. Jupiter and Saturn will appear in a great conjunction, within 0.1 degrees of each other as viewed from earth, so that they will appear to be not two bright planets, but one very bright star. Close conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn happen every 20 years, but the last time they were this close was more than 800 years ago, in 1226.
So in these closing days of 2020, a strange year of plague and politics, protests and polemics, could it be that we are being given a sign in the heavens as two great planets combine their radiance into one great light?
One of the things I loved to do when I was a kid, during the times when we would visit the family farm in Kansas, was to go out at night and stand in the middle of the field and just stare at the brilliance of the night sky. I loved to see the lights of heaven spread out above me in the Milky Way. We would get far enough away from the house so that the house lights didn’t interfere with our stargazing, then just let ourselves get lost in those deep fields of space and all those millions of stars.
On a night with a full moon the stars were fainter, but we could see well enough to nose around a bit in the pasture and to make our way back to the house without our flashlights if we were careful. But on a night with no moon it was another story altogether. On a night with no moon it was easy to lose yourself in the sky and get turned around, and if the lights at the house went out, as they did one time, you could lose your bearings in the dark.
On those nights, standing in the dark, marveling at the stars, I would feel such a strange mixture of awe and vulnerability. I learned fairly early about the distance and strangeness of the stars and planets and it was always a source of wonder to me to think about the great journey through time and space those lights had taken to reach me standing in a field in Kansas. It made me feel both important and insignificant at the same time—important because God had given me the eyes to see and a mind to comprehend the vastness of creation—insignificant because I realized that I was one kid standing on a small planet orbiting a minor star on an outer spiral arm of one galaxy among billions.
And in the middle of these kinds of thoughts, always, every single time, something would happen to remind us that the night was not our natural habitat. Some noise or movement would remind us as we stood out there in the field that the night was full of other creatures and that some of them were not our friends. Fortunately, that also always seemed to be about the time when Mom or Aunt Betty would decide we had been out in the dark long enough and they would turn on the big mercury vapor light that glared over the barnyard. The message was clear. Time to come home. And there was no mistaking which way to go once that light was turned on…provided you were turned in the right direction so you could see it.
Sometimes, if you get turned around in the moonless night and you are facing the wrong direction, you need a nudge from someone to turn you toward the light so you can find your way home.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. To give people a nudge in the right direction.
This happened during a time of tension and anxiety, but for many it was also a time of anticipation and expectation, so when John began baptizing and preaching it was understandable that the priests and Levites would want to know who he was and what he had to say for himself. What was surprising was that John started by telling them who he was not.
“I’m not the Messiah.” He said that pretty plainly, right off the top.
So they asked him, “Well… what then. Are you Elijah?”
“No. Not the prophet.”
“Well then who are you?”
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ Just like the prophet Isaiah said.
“Well if you’re not the Messiah and you’re not Elijah and you’re not the prophet, why are you baptizing?”
“I’m baptizing with water. But if you knew who was already standing here among you… the one who comes after me… I’m not worthy to even untie his sandals.”
For what it’s worth, a little thing should be noted here. It says in the text at the beginning of this passage that John was sent by God. But it says that the people giving John the third degree here, the priests and Levites, were sent by the Pharisees. It’s an interesting contrast. The one who is sent by God wants to focus the attention, to shine the light if you will, on someone else. But the interrogation team sent by the Pharisees are laser-focused on John. John keeps trying to redirect their attention to the one they’ve really been expecting for eons. He tells them, “Guys, at best I’m the moon. You should be looking for the sun. And if you had eyes to see it, you would realize he’s already here among you.”
John comes to a people who, as Isaiah said, are walking in darkness and points to the light that is dawning among us. He comes to a people who are disoriented in the night and turns us to face the beacon that can bring us home.
And here we are in the closing days of the year of Covid and Chaos, craving Christmas, singing Christ be our Light. And God hears our prayers. God sends us John the Baptist to turn us in the right direction, to face us toward the light of Christ.
God sends us a sign in the heavens. In a year when politics has pulled us ever further apart, two gas giants (make of that what you will) have drawn close to each other, Jupiter and Saturn in a rare conjunction, shining with a single bright light to remind us that we are brighter when we shine together.
In a year when we have not been able to come together as the body of Christ in the familiar surroundings of our sanctuaries, God reminds us that Christ is, as Luther said, in, with, and under the common things of life like bread and wine and water so that life, itself is sacred. God reminds us that Christ is in all of creation. God reminds us that Christ is in you and in me. And, more importantly, that we are in Christ, so that even in our individual homes, gathered together by way of our computers and phones we are still the body of Christ.
At the end of a year when we have had so many reasons to weep, God sends us the words of Saint Paul writing in his first letter to Thessaloniki, the oldest of his letters: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. Do not quench the Spirit.”
So if you feel like you’ve been walking through a moonless night and you’re all turned around, stop. Take a minute. Take a breath. Look up.
There is a sign in the heavens to remind you that you are not alone. Christ is in, with and under all of creation and that includes your own sacred life.
Rejoice. Pray. Give thanks. Do not quench the Spirit. Any minute now the light’s going to come on over the barnyard. And if necessary, someone will nudge you in the right direction so you can see it.
Until then, may the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.