Saturday, January 11, 2014

O beautiful star

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Patty Loveless sings it.
Emmylou Harris sings it.
The Judds even sang it at the White House--
O beautiful star of Bethlehem...

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shining far through shadows dim
Giving the light for those who long have gone
Guiding the wise men on their way
Unto the place where Jesus lay
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

Once upon a time
there was  a star.
A beautiful star.
This was not a fairy tale star
but a real star up in the sky.

The Greek word used in the biblical text is aster
(as in the word ASTERoid--
or if you think of the star shape of the flower named aster).
This word choice in the text
tells us that this was a real star,
a star in the heavens.

Aster is  used 24 times in the New Testament
always referring to real stars.
This was not a metaphorical light
nor was it a bright shining angel--
this was a real star.

A brilliantly beautiful star.

The magi knew about the stars.
One of their wisdom gifts was in astronomy.
They paid attention to the heavens,
to the night skies.

People still argue about this star.
People can’t figure out how a star--fixed in place in the heavens--
could have guided the Magi to the very house in Bethlehem
where the Christ child was staying.

But why then, if this was not some amazing star,
why would the Magi,
also known as WISE men,
why would they have undertaken such a long and treacherous journey?

The truth is Matthew’s gospel never says that the star “led” them at all.
The gospel just says they saw the star
and they knew that the time had come for their journey.
They new the new king had been born.

The Magi did not go directly to Bethlehem.
They went to Jerusalem.
After all, where else would one go to find a king in those days?
It was the chief priests and the scribes in Herod’s court
that named Bethlehem as the place to go.
It was the crafty King Herod himself
that sent the wise men on their way to Bethlehem.

O beautiful star the hope of life
Guiding the pilgrims through the night
Over the mountains 'til the break of dawn
Into the land of perfect day
It will give out a lovely ray
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on...

Some have said that the star wasn’t a star at all,
but a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus and the star Regulus.
But the Magi were versed in astronomy
and surely they would know the difference
between a planetary convergence and a single bright star.

Many scientists and theologians
believe that the star
was a real star--
probably a nova or supernova.
Novas and supernovas are unpredictable explosions of existing stars.
They are quite rare
but they are real stars.

Supernovas may shine for months and months,
maybe even longer;
they shine brilliantly and brightly
and then they fade from sight.

The Magi were devout holy men.
They believed in a God of creation,
a God of possibilities
a God who could do anything--
including set a star in the sky as a sign
that the Messiah had been born.

We know what happens in the story.
They find Jesus and Mary
and they are overwhelmed with awe and wonder and joy.
They kneel down and offer the best they have to offer--
gold and frankincense and myrhh.

They also know to pay attention to their dreams
and they go home by another way
to protect this holy family.
At least for awhile.

Why do we care about stars and magi?
Because we, too, need to pay attention
for the light that has been set in the sky to guide us.
It may not be an actual star
but God the creator is still creating in our lives,
still setting signs before us,
still breaking through the darkness with a ray of light.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on.

There is an interesting story behind this song
It wasn’t written by Emmylou Harris or the Judds or Patty Loveless.

It was written by a man named Fisher Boyce
over in middle Tennessee.
Boyce was born in 1887 in Link, Tennessee.
In 1910 he would marry Cora Carlton
and they would have 11 children.
Of those 11, only 5 would live to be adults.
Only one daughter, Willie Ruth Eads is still alive.

Willie Ruth remembers how important music was to her family,
to her growing up years.
“The neighbors would come in,
and we'd all gather around our family piano," Boyce's daughter said.
"My sister Nanny Lou (Taylor) would play,
and we would sing way into the night."

One of his sons remembered his father sharing
how he came to write the song.

"I got up one Sunday morning to write down this song
because the words and melody got on my mind
till I could hardly sleep at night.

But there was so much commotion in the house,
with children running in and out and all around,
that I headed out to the barn
where it was quiet.”

Beautiful Star of Bethlehem was written in a barn.
There was a baby who was also born in a barn.

Fisher Boyce nor his family has ever received any royalties from the song.
In those days it was the publishing company that made all the profits.
It never seemed to bother him though
because he always felt the song was--just like that star--
just like the baby Jesus--
was a gift from God.

“After all”, said Mr. Boyce,
“how could I, a simple, country man ever write a song
about such a glorious event?”

O beautiful star the hope of grace
For the redeemed, the good and the blessed
Yonder in glory when the crown is won
Jesus is now the star divine
Brighter and brighter He will shine
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine upon us until the glory dawns
Give us a lamp to light the way
Unto the land of perfect day
O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on.

O beautiful star of Bethlehem
Shine on.

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When I preached this sermon at St. John's on Sunday, January 5th, I was very blessed to have Chris Rhodes(guitar), Tim Rhodes (guitar) and Tyler Rhodes (banjo) play and sing the verses of the song at the appropriate time in the sermon. They really made the words come to life.  Thanks so much, guys!

I would also like to say that I do not think it is right for songwriters to not receive royalties. Yes, I know this is how it once was but I think it is important to acknowledge that some things (many things?) that once were were and are just plain wrong. We need to honor the gifts of imagination and creativity and part of the way our culture honors people is to pay them for their work. This helps them make a living and have the freedom to continue to create. Here's to songwriters, poets, and all artists!

The information about Fisher Boyce is from this website:

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