At the beginning of this year, on Epiphany Sunday, I handed out a star word to each of you. Do you remember your stars? Mine is still posted on my office door, with its word “Blessedness ” as a guidepost for my year. Did you post your star where you can see it? Do you know what your star word is?
Back when we received our star words, we were full of hope for the year ahead. We had completed a successful annual giving campaign, and were making new plans for conversations with another congregations. When I handed out the stars, I said:
[Your star[ contains a word for you, a word to ponder, to question, to pray with, to laugh over, to wonder about. This star might serve as your guide for the next year. What sort of year will it be for you, as a seeker? What sort of year for you as an individual, as a family member, as a community participant, as a worshipper with this congregation? What might your word suggest to you, during moments of joy, in the middle of nights of heartache, on ordinary days and on extraordinary days? Stars have long been understood to be mysterious guides – the constellations, the specific stars like the North Star, our own sun – guides about which we know little, but which with their light and energy point the way for us, and even save us from some tight spots.
Our stars were born, out of construction paper and markers, on a cold, but calm, wintery day. But in celestial life, stars are born in a more complicated and dramatic way. I’m guessing that the physics and chemistry involved in star formation is a bit beyond most of us, so I’m going to read from a description for kids:
"The] birth places of stars are huge, cold clouds of gas and dust, known as 'nebulas'.
These clouds start to shrink under their own gravity. As the cloud gets smaller, it breaks into clumps. Each clump eventually becomes so hot and dense that nuclear reactions begin. When the temperature reaches 10 million degrees Celsius, the clump becomes a new star."
What I think this means is that stars are born out of the imagination of God. Who else but the Creator of the universe would come up with a plan to mix gasses and dust and gravity and heat into nuclear reactions that would create all those twinkling lights in the sky?
In God’s imagination, all sorts of births take place. Our first story today tells the story of the birth of Samuel.
Samuel is one of those OT characters we aren’t entirely sure about. Who was Samuel, exactly?
Samuel is most well known as an anointer of kings: first Saul, and then David. In Samuel’s time, 3,000 years ago, the nation of Israel was ruled by judges – by people who served mostly as tribal leaders. They weren’t necessarily judges as we think of judges in our courts today, although they might sometimes preside over disputes and issue decisions. But, more often, they were thought of as military leaders who, when wars were over, returned to their people to lead them in times of peace as well.
The people of Israel were not satisfied with their judges. They looked around and saw that their neighbors had kings – hereditary rulers – and they wanted a king, too. Samuel, who was a judge himself, was upset about this, but God told Samuel to go ahead and appoint a king, saying that the people were not rejecting Samuel as their judge, but were rejecting God, their real king. God also told Samuel to warn the people, which he did, that their kings would exploit them, taking their money for the royal treasury and their sons for battle -- but the people still wanted a king, and that’s what they got.
Samuel, the last of the major judges and the anointer of kings, is an important figure in the Bible, because he listened so carefully to God and followed God’s instructions. And important people in the Bible – the stars of the Bible -- are often the subjects of dramatic birth stories, stories in which difficulties are overcome.
Samuel’s story is first the story of his mother Hannah, who, unlike her husband Elkanah’s other wife, was unable to bear children. Elkanah was deeply in love with Hannah and didn’t care about her childless state, but Hannah herself was devastated, and prayed and wept to God for a son. She promised God that if God would give her a son, she in turn would give her son back to God, in service to God. And God did, in response, give her a son, Samuel, and when Samuel was weaned, Hannah took him to the temple to present him to God, and left him there to be raised by Eli, the high priest.
This is a story of high drama – jealousy between wives, intense wailing and weeping and prayer, a miraculous conception, and then – the child given up by the mother who had so longed for him. This is a human version of the story of the creation of a star. I wonder what Samuel’s star word might have been, had Eli handed him a yellow construction-paper star?
Obedient? Servant of God? Leader? Messenger? Prophet? Annointer?
Do any of his words sound like words you might want for yourself? Or do they sound as if they would be too difficult to fulfill?
Of course, when God invites us to be born anew, as a new star, with a new word, the role is often unexpected and not easy to fulfill.
We have another star-birth story today, in the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. This one, however, is first a star-death story. It’s an end-time story, told by Jesus just before his crucifixion, when he proclaims to at least one disciple that the great stones of the temple, the center of Jewish ceremonial life, will all be knocked down. And then he goes on to tell James and John and Peter and Andrew, in confusing – and dramatic – terms, what will happen at the end – or at the beginning, which may be the same thing: There will be false prophets, he says, and wars and rumors of wars, and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This,” says Jesus, “is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
Now, people sometimes like to look at these predictions of war and famine and earthquakes and say, “The end of the world is near!” – because all of these things are happening right now. But, honestly, can you think of any time in human history in which all of these things were not happening? I don’t think that the point is merely to warn of us of the end of the world as a catastrophic event of violence and disaster, which will happen any minute now. I think the point is to tell us that when the Reign of God finally breaks in to our lives in all of its completeness, it will be so different from what we have experienced that the contrast will astonish – and, I believe – delight us. What we are experiencing now is: the beginning of the birth pangs.”
This passage reminds me of a trip our family made just about 31 years ago. My husband and I took our twin sons, who were three months old, down to Florida to see my grandparents – for what we knew was likely to be a final visit with my grandfather, who was extremely ill. I was very close to my grandparents – I had grown up next door to them, and since my brother and I had lost our mother when we were small children, our grandparents had huge roles in our lives. So I was accustomed to long and intimate talks with them. Down in Florida that year, with my grandfather confined to his bed, I spent a lot of time introducing him and his great-grandsons to one another, and a lot of time talking with my grandmother. One night, I was telling her about when my sons were born, and she was telling me about the challenges of caring for my grandfather. She sighed and said, “The passages at the beginning of life and at the end of life are both very hard.”
I think that that’s what Jesus is getting at here. Beginnings and endings – both hard, and made all the more so by the fact that they are simultaneous.
Look back at Samuel’s life, and his mother Hannah’s: what was a joyful beginning for Hannah – the arrival of a longed-for child – was also a heart-rending ending, as she had promised to return that child to God. What was a hard ending for Samuel – the separation from his parents – was also an exciting beginning – his new life in the temple with the high priest, Eli.
Look at what Jesus says: the end of the temple of coming. The end of life as you know it, the end of your expectations and plans and rituals – all will be knocked down, just as the huge stones of the temple will be. But these things are the birth pangs – the signs of new beginnings of a new creation, of the in breaking of the reign of God when all shall be made new, and there will be crying and tears no more. A new-star sort of life.
What about you and your star-word? Is a star about to be born? Are you about to be born again? Is your star a sign of something completely unexpected?
I freely admit: When I taped my yellow star with the word ”Blessedness” to my door, I did not expect Blessedness to look like the end of this year does.
I expected Blessedness to look like a new church. New members and friends. Maybe a children’s Sunday School. That food pantry Doris dreamed of. Special events in Grandpa’s.
I did not expect Blessedness to look like closed doors. Like new members and friends in other congregations. Like giving away all of our leftover food. Like giving away almost everything in Grandpa’s. Like planning final services for the last Sunday of this church year instead of Advent services for the first Sundays of the new church year.
But . . . these are the birth pangs. “In our end is our beginning,” as the song says. Hannah had to promise to give up her child to get her child. Samuel had to lose his family to gain his role as judge and anointer of kings. The temple had to fall to make way for something even now, 2000 years later, unknown. Jesus had to die to himself to give life to all. We have to reach an ending to rise elsewhere.
These are the birth pangs. Not death pangs, but birth pangs. In Greek, the language of the gospel for the phrase ”birth pangs” means “travail” – hard work, involving suffering. In English, the word “to birth” comes from a Norse word meaning “to bear”: to carry, to support, to move. Both are true, aren’t they? This is hard work, but it is the word of carrying and supporting and moving forward.
I intend to carry my star word, “Blessedness,” forward. I intend to support others in a blessed future.
What about you? How will you carry your word into the future, into the continuing realization of the kingdom of God?
I pray that you will know blessedness as you lift your star word up and carry it onward. Amen
 Space for Kids. https://www.esa.int/esaKIDSen/SEMY06WJD1E_OurUniverse_0.html
Image: Star Formation System. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_1028.html