Who has seen the stars in the sky? It’s kind of like this lantern, right? Sparkly, neat. I bet that if you stood outside your house tonight, you might even be able to count the stars that you see—especially if you live in town.
Who has been out in the middle of nowhere, someplace very, very dark, and looked up at the stars. Is there a difference? There are so many stars, you can’t even count them!
Why do you think there’s a difference? Because the light around us keeps us from seeing the lights far away. Did you know that there are billions of stars right above us even during the daytime? The reason you can’t see them is because the sun is so bright. So, the darker things get, the brighter the stars become. (Black felt over the lamp.)
Let’s pray. God, help us look for your stars when things are really dark. Amen.
(pass out stars as a reminder)
It never fails—when I clean the house, no one notices; when something is a mess, it’s the first thing their eyes take in. Have you ever noticed that? When things are as they should be, we just don’t pay any attention. It’s only when things start to get wonky that we notice what isn’t—rather than what is.
It’s a bit unfortunate, really. Imagine the marvelous and wondrous things we miss simply because we expect them to be there. Clean windows, milk in the fridge, gas in the tank, maintained roads, football on Saturday, worship on Sunday, the air we breathe—even the stars at night. We so easily take for granted the things that seem to be a given in our lives—until they’re not there.
Sometimes, the lack of these things are obvious and immediate—lightning storms that cancel a game, smears on the windows, no toilet paper within reach. And sometimes, we are more like the boiling frogs. Those things we take for granted slip by us so slowly that we don’t realize they’re gone until it’s too late.
The readings today are not exactly uplifting. And you may wonder, “What does that have to do with the sky?” I wondered that, too—I didn’t choose the readings. The first reading is from the prophet, Jeremiah. He had been warning Judah of the coming exile. He had been begging the people to return from their evil ways and once again worship the God of their ancestors—the God of life and promise and hope. But they refused.
The people of Judah, like their northern brethren in Israel, had turned to idols—gods who could not provide and who did not care. They pledged their allegiance to glory rather than life. They turned away from hope. And they had not noticed how far from God they had become—they had taken it for granted. Jeremiah tried to warn them what would happen if they didn’t change their ways. But by the fourth chapter, the part we read today, he’s given up on trying to change their minds. His words are simply stating what is in store for them.
“I looked on the earth, and it had become a wasteland; and to the skies, and they had become dark. The mountains were quaking. The animals had fled. Land that once provided fruit was a desert, and the cities had been destroyed—the people were gone. Because of your sinfulness, the whole creation is effected and mourns its loss. Skies are black and land is grey. And God will not repent.”
They should have seen it coming—the prophet told them what would happen. And yet, they didn’t change their ways. Eventually, it was too late. And the empire of Babylon came—they took the people into exile, laid waste the land, and demolished the Temple. All that the people took for granted was no more.
You’ve probably seen pictures of Hurricane Florence—especially the satellite images. It’s incredible—the mass of swirling clouds that seem to cover such a large area of ocean, slowly moving toward land. And then, it hits.
You’ve likely seen amazing and awe-inspiring pictures of tornadoes. Incredible and destructive. Perhaps, here in Nebraska, you’ve been in their path. Perhaps you’ve experienced the horror, the fear, the chaos. The devastation that follows.
Have you seen the sky? Have you seen the Milky Way—the way it looks like someone threw a handful of sparkling dust across the sky? Have you seen the brilliance of the stars—the billions of pinpoints of light scattered above us? Have you seen it really? Many haven’t. Many would be astounded by what we can’t see from within the city. And those living in larger cities—have they just become accustomed to the smog, thinking it’s just normal?
Maybe you’ve felt it or maybe you’ve noticed—the storms, the floods, the destruction has been increasing. The increase in asthma and breathing illnesses in children. It’s not an illusion. It’s not just because we have more news and access to social media. The whole creation is groaning under the weight of human sin. The sky grows dark in mourning—mourning for the loss of Judah, mourning for the death of God, mourning over the hard hearts of humanity.
Jesus’ disciples had taken him for granted. They took for granted what the Messiah would do. They took for granted what God would do. They weren’t paying attention. Jesus warns the disciples three times what would happen to the Messiah—what MUST happen to the Messiah—what was destined to happen simply because of the sin of humanity. And they didn’t listen. They didn’t get it. They continued to steep themselves in human folly.
The first time Jesus warned them, Peter tried to take over and lead Jesus to glory. The second time, the disciples spent their time arguing over who would take his place in greatness after he died. And the third time, James and John vied for places of honor beside him while the other disciples wished they had thought of it first.
Glory, honor, greatness, pride—the sins of humanity—the sins that preferred to substitute Jesus’ humble revelation of a loving and gracious God with their own gods. Gods of consumption, gods of segregation, gods of national pride, gods of wealth, gods of power, gods of triumph. And the gods did not deliver but rather killed the God of love.
As Jesus hung on the cross of humanity’s sin, darkness covered the whole land. Darkness took hold until the moment Jesus died. And at that moment, it says that the curtain in the Temple was ripped apart, from top to bottom. Torn in two. The Temple is where God was ‘housed’—where God could be met. But only in the Holy of Holies once a year, and only by the priest. The Holy of Holies was protected by a curtain. And the moment Jesus died, God tore apart the division—tore apart the dark separation between humanity and divinity. God had come among us in Emmanuel—in the Christ. And after Jesus’ death, God was let loose in a way that couldn’t be contained by a curtain or a body or even a church.
I imagine that at the same time the curtain tore apart, the dark and mourning skies also tore apart. They tore apart in complete grief, like a mother who cries out at the death of a child. But they also tore apart in celebration. Jesus had done what he intended to do—he taught, healed, he showed the world how far sin will take us…and finally, he died. When the rest of the world sees a devastating end to a good life and a possible triumph, creation sees the beginning of God’s rule breaking into the world—new life coming from death. And in that is our hope.
As I reminded the kids, it’s when things are really dark that we can see the lights of the stars best. In the death of Christ, the light of God’s love shone the brightest. And in the moments when we realize how loudly creation groans under the weight of our sin and consumption, the light of life and hope shines within us—the light of the Spirit kindles flames of change—the light of God reveals to us the life-giving way of humility.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church