Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Almost twenty-nine years ago, an American space craft, Voyager I, left our planetary neighborhood headed for the fringes of the solar system. When it was around 4 billion miles from home, it turned its camera around and took a photograph of the earth. A number of you, I know, will remember it. The earth shows up, in that picture, as a tiny, pale blue dot, not at all recognizable except to astute astronomers, a minuscule and seemingly inconsequential dot in an apparently infinite skyscape.
Its smallness was so striking, in fact, that the famous astronomer, Carl Sagan, wrote eloquently about his reaction to it—so eloquently, in fact, that one of our sons has it memorized. “Look again at that dot,” said Sagan. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” And while everyone we’ve ever known or heard of, every bit of history has been lived out here, it’s also true, says Sagan, that “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” he said, a tiny obscure spot in an overwhelming vastness (http://www.planetary.org/explore/space-topics/earth/pale-blue-dot.html).
It’s not really arguable, is it. With hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, who are we to say that this planetary home of ours is anything but totally insignificant. How utterly preposterous, it may well seem, for us to think that the creating God would have a special eye out for us. Isn’t the universe just too immense to imagine that such personal care is in any way possible? Aren’t we just too puny to matter at all in the larger scheme of things?
Possibly. And yet—we tell a story. We tell a story of a baby born in what is, for us, a distant land, in extremely modest circumstances. It’s a story of mysterious sages from the east who come to bow down before this child. It’s a story of a king who is deeply threatened by this seemingly powerless infant.
And as we tell and hear that story, we know that it all matters, don’t we. We know that each second of life is precious beyond belief. And these two stories—the incomprehensibly huge universe, and, on the other hand, this sense that who we are and what we do matters—these two stories run headlong into each other.
The psalmist had an inkling of this thousands of year ago when she asked of God, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). In the face of such cosmic massiveness, who in the world, who in the universe, are we? We can feel so small sometimes.
Then on Friday afternoon, I walked down Bell St. into the village to go to the bank and to mail a package. It was such a strikingly beautiful afternoon. The sky was crystal clear. The sun shone warm on Main St. A couple with a gorgeous pit bull walked by. Our picturesque village danced with spirit and life and throbbed with an inescapable electricity.
Yes, visitors once journeyed to Bethlehem to see a little baby who was not only the heart of the earth, but also the heart of the universe. And in my mind’s eye, as I strolled through our town, I could picture it again here—sages from Shanghai or Cape Town or Aleppo traveling to tiny Chagrin Falls. Because here, too, that radiant child is born again and again and again—God’s decisive, world-changing light and love sparking to life, here, in this particular spot on this infinitesimally small pale blue dot in the universe.
Because relative size has nothing to do with radiance and spirit and life, does it? Mary and I have learned that in spades with the birth almost a year ago of our granddaughter Allie. When she is in the room, all eyes are on her. She’s a disaster for anyone who needs the spotlight, because she is clearly the firelight in any room she enters. She can’t talk. She can’t walk. She laughs and she cries and she points, and she frowns in such an intense way that it makes her mother Cynthia say, “Oooh, judgy face.” And we are all putty in the hands of this tiniest member of our family. If we didn’t think something so puny could have such an amazing effect on her surroundings, we have learned a valuable lesson.
This is the way it was in Bethlehem. This is the way it is in tiny Chagrin Falls. This is the way it is in each of our homes and workplaces and neighborhoods: a tiny child is born and nothing is ever the same again. And what’s the appropriate response, then and now? After the sages had had their disconcerting conversation with King Herod, “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.” And then, at the story’s climax, this arresting line: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9-10).
Somewhere in some average home in an out-of-the-way part of an out-of-the-way planet, some people who had traveled what was for them a huge distance found what they were looking for. They found the holy God who made them and all that is. God was with them. Emmanuel. And what was their reaction? They were “overwhelmed with joy.”
Sometimes, in the midst of the frenetic pace so many of us live, I suspect what’s asked of us is that we pause. That we just stop. And that we take in the majesty and the wonder and the aching beauty of this shimmering pale blue dot on which we live. That we sit on a bench on Main St., and watch the world go by, and remember that, of all the unlikely places, this, too, is the place in which the Christ is born, this too, is the very place in which God chooses to make a home. This, too, is the place, as the book of Revelation puts it, in which God has chosen to move into the neighborhood (21:3, The Message).
So as Jesus said to his disciples: “Let those who have ears to hear hear.” Pale blue dot or not, this is the place God dwells. In probably his most famous poem, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./ It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;/ it gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil/ Crushed.” And why is this? “Because,” says Hopkins, “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings” (“God’s Grandeur”).
When Christ shows up, everything else fades to a distant second. Here, in our very neighborhood, a little baby commands a room, and that room is “overwhelmed with joy.” Here a long-estranged mother and son celebrate Christmas together and they are “overwhelmed with joy.” Here a teenager who has wrestled with the demon called depression begins to see a ray of light, and the family is “overwhelmed with joy.” Here the organization HOLA Ohio takes sometimes lost, fearful, confused Latino and Latina people under their wing and teaches them and develops their skills and accepts them for who they are, and infusing the whole organization is the feeling of being “overwhelmed with joy.”
On my walk into town on Friday afternoon, I happened to run into a family I had only just met. They were in town visiting extended family at Christmas, and they had just been here at Federated to worship. They have lived in Atlanta and North Carolina for many years, and have absorbed the party line of many an American church, that it’s simply wrong for a person to be LGBTQ.
We talked for probably a half hour on the sidewalk in town, and the mother in the family eventually said to me, “I’ve kept wondering why your church would have such a prominent rainbow banner displayed outside the church, when I’ve been taught that’s wrong. But then I thought of the young man I work with in our animal shelter who is gay and who has been told by his family that he’s never to come home again. And he’s been told by his church never to come back. And my teenage daughter just said to me last night, ‘Mom, that banner isn’t a political statement. It’s not a volley in the culture wars. It’s a message to your teenage friend. That banner is saying to him, “You are welcome here.” Don’t you think he needs to know that?’ And the woman paused, and then she said to me, “So I’ve done a lot of growing in these last few days.”
This is the day of Epiphany, the day in which we celebrate the manifestation of Christ right here in the midst of our otherwise ordinary lives. Here we see life-giving tears shed and laughter shared. Here we witness forgiveness played out. Here we feel those funny little butterflies in our stomachs that tell us something beautiful and earth-changing is happening. And right here we have the blessing of being part of a church that wants everyone to know they’re welcome. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That’s what we say. That’s what we believe. That’s what we know matters. Which means that right here, on this pale blue dot, in the midst of what might otherwise be total insignificance, we know the presence of the Christ who is Emmanuel, the Christ who is God with us, the Christ who is present in the meal we’re about to share. And with that awareness, we know the richness of being “overwhelmed with joy.” Thanks be to God.