Seeing Saturn

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Matthew 2:1-12. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

Several years ago, my nephew Teddy got a telescope for Christmas.

My whole extended family had gathered for dessert on the evening of Christmas Day. This was back when I was living in Minneapolis, and my parents and my sister and I and our kids all saw each other on a pretty regular basis. We’d had our own Christmas dinners earlier in the day, but we came together at Ginny’s house for dessert. And Ginny was telling us how her son Teddy had been developing a real interest in astronomy lately. She said that Teddy had made a star-finder chart in school, and the other night he’d been out in the park behind their house, using his chart to try to find Saturn, but he wasn’t sure whether the point of light in the sky he’d identified was really Saturn, or maybe something else – and when he’d asked for a telescope for Christmas, well, it seemed like kind of the obvious choice. So now Teddy had his telescope, and he couldn’t wait to take it out and look for Saturn.

Listening to Ginny talk, and watching Teddy put together his new telescope on its tripod, made me think of the time I’d been given my first telescope. I have been interested in astronomy for about as long as I can remember being interested in anything, and I knew exactly the kind of enthusiasm that Teddy was radiating at that moment. I also knew that Saturn was up, and the sky was clear, and that very moment would be a great time for some amateur telescopy. So I asked Teddy if he’d like to go out into the ballpark with me and look for Saturn. And we bundled up in our jackets – it was December in Minnesota, after all – and he gathered up his telescope, and out we went to do some planet-gazing.

I found Saturn in the constellation Taurus right away; but getting the telescope focused on Saturn was a different matter. We aimed it and adjusted it and fumbled with the mounting hardware and adjusted it some more – and we were just about to give up, when suddenly, in the telescope’s eyepiece, Saturn swam into view: a little yellow ball surrounded by the most astonishing set of brilliant shining rings.

Now, there is something different about seeing the planet Saturn in the sky. Teddy and I had both seen pictures of Saturn, of course, we all have: pictures taken through big astronomical telescopes, pictures sent back from the Hubble space telescope or the Cassini probe, pictures in a book or magazine or on a computer screen. Pictures like that are amazing – but they always seem to me a little distant, at one remove from my own experience. There is something about looking up into the night sky, and seeing this little point of light that looks no different from any other star – and then taking a closer look, through a telescope but still with your own eyes, and realizing that that little light is a whole world, realizing that that planet really is there and is not just a figment of computer-generated imagery, realizing that there is more reality in the depth of the sky than you typically see but is always already there nonetheless. There was something awesome about seeing Saturn, through a telescope, standing in a ballfield, with my nephew, behind my sister’s house, in the middle of a party, on a Christmas night. There was something awesome about seeing that light in the sky in a way we’d never seen before.

There were astrologers in the East, Matthew tells us today, who looked up into the night sky and saw light in a way they’d never seen before. And they were so moved by awe and wonder that they followed that light, they made that new light the guiding principle of their journey, they left behind the comfortable familiarity of their homes, and went out on a road they’d literally never traveled before. They had no idea where that light was taking them; they had no idea what that light was getting them into; they had no idea how hard it would be at times to keep their focus on the light or to find it again if it slipped out of their view. They didn’t know about Jewish prophecies of the Messiah; they didn’t know about palace intrigues in Jerusalem, and the manipulations of corrupt King Herod, who was so anxious to hold on to his own power that he’d use just about any degree of violence to put down any perceived rivals; they didn’t know about Emmanuel, God-with-us, the divine presence in human life, that they would find when the star stopped over Bethlehem; they didn’t know what gifts they would open up and discover in themselves – not just the gold and frankincense and myrrh they carried, but honor and worship and sacrifice in their hearts, gifts for the Christ they would come to know at their destination. They had no idea how the journey to follow that light was going to change them. All they knew at the moment was the awe and the wonder and the excitement – and maybe a little bit of fear – as they saw light in a way they’d never seen it before, and they knew they would have to follow that light wherever, wherever, it might lead them to go.

And I think that the Gospel good news for us today is that the light of Christ shines into our lives in just the same way: in unexpected places, in unexpected times, in ordinary circumstances, and sometimes in extraordinary circumstances too. The light of Christ shines in helping a nephew to see Saturn for the first time. The light of Christ shines in looking for the Epiphany star in any ordinary January sky. The light of Christ shines in looking and watching and working for the dawn of peace in a world that seems always spinning though cycles of war and terror and violence. The light of Christ shines in the faces of friends as we help each other bear our burdens and celebrate our joys. The light of Christ shines for us wherever we see something in a new way, in a new depth, with a new love – and when we then shape our journey to follow where that light will lead.

But if the Gospel today is a promise that the light of Christ will shine in our lives, it is also a reminder that we have to learn how to look for that light. The wise men relied on years of training and experience in observing the sky and the stars and the planets to know how to interpret the sign of a new king’s birth. Teddy and I had to keep at it until we got the telescope focused on Saturn. In just the same way, we need practice in interpreting, we need to learn how to focus our “inner telescopes” so that we can resolve a mere point of light into something with depth and reality and meaning.

And fortunately for us, there are ways we can learn to look for the light. There are forms of prayer, and methods of reflection, and practices of discernment that we can do with one another, that we can support in one another, that will help us get better and better at recognizing the light of Christ where it shines. Those of you who have taken EfM, Education for Ministry, have learned theological reflection, a powerful tool for looking at any situation and asking Where is God in all this? Those of you who have gone to Gospel du Jour or Bible study have experienced a way of reading a passage of scripture and asking What is God saying to me, to me, through this scripture right now? And those of you who haven’t experienced those things – perhaps 2015 is your year to find out what they’re all about. One of the most important things we can do in the Christian life is help each other learn how to focus our inner telescopes to resolve the light of Christ shining and guiding us.

The wise men looked up and saw a star. My nephew and I set up a telescope and saw Saturn. How will you see the light of Christ this Christmas and Epiphany? How will you help others learn to see the light? And how will you let that light guide you ever deeper into God’s love?

That is your Epiphany Gospel today. Amen.