The Christmas Star

On December 21, 2020, the planets Jupiter and Saturn appeared extremely close together in the sky in what folks have been calling “The Christmas Star.”

Astronomers have another name for the phenomenon, calling it a ‘great conjunction’ – referring to how close they appear in the sky (though they were actually about 465 million miles apart at the time).  It’s also an exceedingly rare event; as you may have heard, the last time they appeared so close in the sky in a way visible to folks in the northern hemisphere, it was 1226 AD.

With all of the talk of the “Christmas Star”, could it be that something like this was what got the attention of the Wise Men and set them traveling to Jerusalem to seek the King of the Jews as described in the Gospel of Matthew?

I think it’s very plausible, with a few caveats.

The first caveat is that there is no physical object that would behave exactly like what is described in Matthew 2:9-10 where the star “stops” over the place where the child was.  The image here seems more an echo of God’s guiding the people of Egypt in the wilderness through the pillar of fire and smoke.  If so, that may be a more narrative element than intended as a descriptive one.

Which is the second caveat – attempts to scientifically ‘prove’ the genuinely miraculous aren’t necessarily helpful.  From a Christian perspective, we aren’t surprised that a God who both created the universe and is active within it, can so work within creation that natural things happen at a time and place that accomplishes God’s purposes.  From a non-theistic perspective, those could be called coincidences.  But when we try to explain the truly miraculous, by which I mean things that are genuinely outside of the patterns of nature & laws of physics – they are intrinsically unprovable and unrepeatable by scientific methods.  That’s not a slam on science, just describing its limitations.  Events like the resurrection, the transfiguration, miracles of instantaneous healing; when we try to make them ‘rational’ to fit a materialistic worldview, it just doesn’t work.

All of that to say; if the Star of Bethlehem fits into the latter category, we’re not going to get too far with explanations.

But…  there’s a reason Matthew tells the story of the Wise Men, and that suggests that God was communicating in a way they could understand, (kind of like the incarnation itself…).

First, we need to deal with some calendar stuff.  You might know that we don’t actually know what day Jesus was born on – that December 25th is the date chosen by the ancient church to remember Jesus’ birth, but not claimed to actually *be* the anniversary of Jesus’ birth.

But what gets weird is that Jesus was actually born ‘BC’ – yep.  Due to an error in the formation of the Anno Domini dating system in 525, which incorrectly dated the year of Jesus’ birth, the various sources of data we have point to Jesus being born sometime between 7 BC and 4 BC.  The clue in Luke’s Gospel about the shepherds being out in the fields by night also point to a fall or springtime date for Jesus’ birth.

Ok, with that timeframe in mind, let’s start talking astronomy.  Or rather astrology, because the Wise Men were actually ‘Magi’ – astrologers from Persia, people who (among other things) studied the night sky for omens and signs.

Astrology itself is based on the movements of the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) across the constellations of the zodiac.  Each planet and each constellation had different meanings.  While the stars trace a regular path across the night sky each evening and season, the planets seemed to move around all over the place.  The word planet itself in Greek means ‘wanderer’.  The wanderings of these planets across the sky was often seen as a message to those down on the earth.

However — the movement of the planets are not random; we can calculate and predict their movements (as could many ancient astronomers), which lets us rewind and fast forward the night sky to see what was going on back then.

So, were there any special planetary conjunctions between 7 and 4 BC?

You bet.

In 7BC – there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces

    • On May 29, 7 BCE
    • On September 29, 7 BCE
    • On December 4, BCE

In 6 BC there was a near conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces where the three planets lined up close to the horizon, looking west.

In both cases, an argument goes that Pisces, symbolizing the fish, had special significance in regards to the Jewish people.

In August 12, 3 BCE – Venus and Jupiter have a close conjunction in the constellation Leo (which is understood to refer to kingship), and then another even closer one in 2 BCE where they appear to merge.  The two brightest planets in the night sky merging as one would have been an impressive sight, and astronomer Roger Sinott made a case that the 2 BCE event was what the magi were referring to in Matthew chapter 2.

To be clear – I am not condoning or supporting astrology as an idea or a practice.  The Bible itself condemns the impulse to worship the stars (Deuteronomy 4:19) and attempts to divine the future (Deuteronomy 18:9-12).

I do think that in this instance, it is possible God communicated with the Magi in a way they could understand, to point them to Jesus, the one who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Which again points us to a God who will reach out to us wherever we are, to draw us to the One who alone is the source of our life and hope.

May that then, be the invitation for us this Christmas – to not only be living with our eyes open for God, but the readiness to act on it, that Jesus may be king in our hearts and lives.

Blessings to you this Christmas season and always.

-Pastor Brian

(some references)
https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/great-jupiter-saturn-conjunction-dec-21-2020

http://www.astronomynotes.com/history/bethlehem-star.html

http://www.iranchamber.com/calendar/articles/astrology_astronomy_iran_mesopotamia.php

not an academic link but interesting for the topic:

https://sewjewish.com/2015/06/21/signs-of-the-zodiac-are-jewish-symbols/

Living our Faith in a time of Covid-19

In light of the need to provide for the health of both the church and community, FBC has suspended our in-person gatherings and regular ministries for the time being.

First Baptist Church continues to be committed to living out the love of God in these circumstances by caring for our neighbors, our church family and one another, encouraging each other and remaining connected.

Here’s our current ministry focus right now at First Baptist Church:

Worship

Worship will need to be online for a while; and we are working to establish the easiest ways for people to be able to join us in worship online.

We will stream an online worship gathering at 10am at https://www.youtube.com/user/FBCBloomingtonIL/live

We encourage everyone who is able to join us at 10am and check-in through the comments/chat section as a way of sharing that we have gathered in spirit.  The service recording will be available afterward for those who can’t join at that time.

Following the worship service, we invite you to join us in a video conference where we can see one other, check in and pray together.

Please note that you will not be able to join the meeting until it goes ‘live’ following the worship service on Sunday.  

You may want to try the link anyway to install Zoom on your web browser or to install the app on your phone or tablet ahead of time.  Our evening devotional times at 7pm are also a way to check in and test out Zoom before Sunday.

Here’s a link on what Zoom is and how to use it.

Links to these events will be posted here by Friday; check back soon!

Connection

During this time when we are being discouraged from gathering in person and minimizing our personal contact with others, it’s vitally important that we find ways to stay connected with one another.

Our staff and leadership are developing ways to make sure we can be in communication with all our members, especially those who are unable to connect online.

At the same time, we encourage every member and friend of FBC to reach out to one another, check in on each other and see how things are going, particularly those who may be more isolated.  Call, text, send a card or a letter.  If you know of someone who is struggling, or who may need some help, do what you can, and let the church know so that we can respond together.

We are also thinking up creative ways that each of us can share and check in with each other online; from sharing a story of where you’re seeing God at work in the midst of this, to sending in silly hat photos…  We all need both spiritual encouragement and a good laugh — and sometimes they’re one and the same.

One of our primary ways we’ll have to share information quickly will be via. email; if you would like to stay in touch with latest developments, please email us at: info@fbcblm.org

Discipleship

Our LOGOS program is not meeting in person, but our LOGOS team is hard at work to reach out to our families.  We will be posting videos, devotional material, resources, and finding other ways to stay connected.

You can find our weekly LOGOS videos here.

Likewise, our Small Groups and Sunday Classes are not meeting, but we are in the process of adding ways we can share devotionals, resources, and ways to pray for one another.

In the coming weeks, look for Zoom meetings to be posted that will allow us to gather online for Bible study and prayer.

Mission

First Baptist Church remains committed to reaching out to our community to bear witness to God’s love in action and in word.

We continue to partner with Sugar Creek Elementary School, collaborating in providing food packs and other supplies.

Volunteers from church continue to serve at Safe Harbor, Faith In Action, and other local agencies.

We will be posting ways that healthy individuals can care for the community and help folks in a variety of ways, and we are committed to doing what we can to help those who are affected by the indirect effects of coronavirus and its economic impacts.

All of this is a work in progress –

We are working hard to realign our entire way of doing ministry in this time; it takes time, and there will be bumps along the way.  Let us know how we can best help you in this time, and please be patient with us in the process!

That said – it is a reminder that *we* – all of us – are the church; and this time presents us a unique opportunity to live that out together.  May God bless and sustain each of us in spirit and in body in these days!

Grace and Peace,

-Pastor Brian

FBC Coronavirus Update (March)

To our First Baptist Church Family and Friends

This evening, the FBC board, Senior Pastor, Minister of Worship and LOGOS Director met to discuss our next steps in responding as a church to the emerging situation with the coronavirus.

As we prepared to meet, Governor Pritzker issued a statement this afternoon ordering bars and restaurants to close to dine-in customers by the end of day on Monday, March 16.  At the same time, the CDC continues to refine its guidelines for gatherings.

In light of our desire to protect those most at risk from coronavirus by following best practices concerning public gatherings, the board has unanimously agreed on the following course of action:

The Celebration of Life for Brenda Azinger will be held at the church Monday, March 16 at 11am, followed by a luncheon.

Beginning tomorrow afternoon, First Baptist Church will suspend all regular programming until further notice.

This includes gathering physically for worship on Sunday, the LOGOS program, our regular small groups, Bible studies and so on.

At the same time, the church office and our ministries will be at work communicating in a variety of ways with the church and community, including opportunities to connect with worship online, receive devotionals and so on.  We will be especially mindful of those who do not have access to ways of communicating online, and will appreciate the help of the church in identifying and reaching out to those who may need extra care and support in this time.

The office will remain open during regular business hours to maintain contact with members and friends through our website: www.fbcblm.org, Facebook Page, by phone, email and other means as practical.

Official communications and announcements will come from the church staff as the board and staff work together to keep everyone informed.

Each committee and facet of our ministry is engaged in working to find ways to stay connected and carry out our ongoing mission to encourage one another in faith and to bear witness to the love of God in Christ through our caring for one another in the church and community.

Three things we would ask of our church members and friends at this time:

  • Be in prayer for our community and especially those impacted physically, economically and socially by this coronavirus outbreak. Prayer is an act of trust in God who is aware and moving in the midst of these circumstances.
  • Stay connected and compassionate. We will be working to provide ways to connect and encourage one another even as we cannot meet in person.  Please consider ways to call and check in on those who may be more isolated, experiencing anxiety or distress in this time.  May our times of prayer be opportunities where we allow God to speak and direct us and our hearts toward God and toward others.
  • Please continue to engage in and support the mission of the church as you are able. We will need everyone’s continued personal and financial engagement and support as we seek to provide ministry care for the church and community.  Checks can be sent in to the church, and online donations can be made through the website.  We do know that the financial effects of this outbreak are touching many lives – if you are experiencing difficulties or need assistance, please let Pastor Brian know.

One additional note relating to persons or groups and the rental and use of the church facilities outside of our regular ministries:

Any person or group who already has an agreement to rent or use the church from March 18 to May 1, 2020 will be contacted with the notification that First Baptist Church may need to cancel the approval of their event.  All other rentals and special services/requests will be reviewed on a case by case basis.

The church board will continue to meet and evaluate the situation and our response.  We will look forward to resuming our regular ministries and schedule as soon as advisable.

Please contact the church office and Pastor Brian with any questions, concerns or needs.  Thank you for your prayers, support and understanding.

In the peace of Christ,

-Pastor Brian

 

Participating in Christ – Chapter Five

Apocalypse — what comes to mind when we hear the word?  The end of the world?  The whole genre of post-apocalyptic movies, literature and games that encompass zombie outbreaks, post nuclear holocausts or the Blade Runner vision of a dystopian future?

Actually, the word apokalypsis literally means ‘un-covering’ or revelation; an exposing of reality that was previously hidden or unknown.  The book of the Bible we know as Revelation is literally called Apokalypsis in Greek – not because it is about the end of the world (why Christians think of it that way instead of as New Creation is beyond me, but that’s a different conversation), but because in it we find a revealing of God’s message and purpose in history to a servant of Jesus named John.

That understanding of apocalypse as being an unveiling or revealing of truth is essential to understanding this chapter from Gorman entitled: “The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians.”

It’s worth noting that Gorman’s main audience is pastoral and academic, engaging conversations that have been going on for quite a while in trying to understand Paul’s theology and how that relates to life, to the Torah, to God’s covenants with Israel and what that has to do with a community in Christ that includes Jew and Gentile together.

One of the key takeaways for me is that when Paul is writing about Jesus, he is not just passing along a revelation he has been given (i.e. information about Jesus or even his personal story of encountering Jesus), but that his life itself has become a revealing of the presence and work of Jesus.

In other words, because as Paul says in Romans 6:8 “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him,” this transforming work of God in us becomes a way God is revealing God’s self and God’s purpose in the world.

Participation in Christ then, is not just a personal mystic experience or a body of knowledge to be passed along, but a way in which our lives, being caught up in the life of God, makes God’s work visible in the world.  Lest we get ahead of ourselves, it’s essential to remember that for Paul, it is Christ crucified in which the character of God is revealed.  Which again brings us back to confront our temptations of a theology of glory vs. a theology of the cross.

This indwelling becomes the fulfillment of the promises made in Ezekiel and Jeremiah about receiving a new heart that enables us to live in right relationship with God.  In Gorman’s words:

“This apocalyptically [The dramatic way in which God] revealed new covenant is, and must be, revealed for what it is by being made visible in human lives and communities that are being transformed by the Spirit to bear testimony to the paradoxical reality of nature of God’s apocalypse [revelation] and new creation in the crucified Messiah”

In other words – making God visible as we live a life not only patterned after Jesus, but lived in the power and presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit within and among us.

To some, that’s a pretty obvious conclusion – yet it’s challenging precisely as we engage the scandal of a crucified Messiah as the one who sets the pattern for us.

One of the things I appreciate most about this approach is that it avoids the temptation to reduce faith to spirituality or knowledge or action, instead drawing all three elements together in a relationship lived in the presence and empowering of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in community with others.

Note: Dr. Scot McKnight at the Blog: Jesus Creed is also moving through this book, and it seems that we’re moving through at about the same pace, as his article on this chapter went up earlier this week.   His comments can be found here, and I’d highly encourage folks to give that a read as well.

Participating in Christ – Chapter Four

If Philippians 2:6-11 is a central description of what God’s cruciform love looks like in the person of Jesus Christ, the introductory verse of Philippians 2:5 is critical for understanding how Paul intends us to understand the implications for our lives and identity.

A complication is that there are different potential translations and interpretations of what the NRSV translates as “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”

Gorman highlights two of the main ways the passage has been interpreted.  Is it about imitating Jesus’ mindset or continuing in the identity we already have in Christ?  An example of this would be in the ESV translation: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

The bulk of this chapter is a fairly technical proposal that Gorman puts forward for a third way of understanding and translating this passage.  The in-depth rationale he presents for his translation will probably be difficult to follow for most readers, but we can take a look at where he lands and examine its implications.

He prefers to render Philippians 2:5 this way: “Cultivate this mindset – this way of thinking, acting and feeling – in your community, which is in fact a community in the Messiah Jesus.”

My sense of the core distinction between imitation and participation for Gorman is to guard against the idea of Jesus as just a moral example that we are to follow, which could be substituted by any other really good or moral person we should follow.

Gorman doesn’t like the word imitation, but there is a role for active response to who God is revealed to be.  The difference as I see it, is that we cannot imitate from the outside, as if we are apart from Jesus trying to be like Him.  Instead, to be a Christian, we are intrinsically drawn into community that is literally “in Christ”, participating in the continuing life of God in the pattern of Jesus the Messiah whose story reveals the character and nature of God in Philippians 2:6-11.

As he puts it, in Christ Jesus, “those who live in the Messiah are to be conformed to the pattern of his self-humbling and self-emptying, not merely as imitators of a model, but as persons whose fundamental identity is to participate in him and thus in his story.”

My core takeaway is the understanding that to be ‘in Christ’ is more than imitation of an ideal or example, but an entry into a community shaped and indwelt by God; Father, Son, Spirit.

If it all sounds way too esoteric and lofty; perhaps it’s useful to consider some related questions:

  • If Jesus is just an example, could we realistically substitute any other sufficiently good or wise person for him?  What would be missing in so doing?
  • What difference does it make that participation in Christ involves life in community, not just individual morality?
  • How does the mystical or spiritual dimension of this change how we view the Christian life?
  • What questions does this stir up for you?

Participating in Christ – Reflections on Michael Gorman’s book

Michael J. Gorman’s book Participating in Christ is a fascinating exploration of a phrase we encounter time and again in Paul’s writings, yet perhaps without considering what exactly it means to be in Christ.

True to the title of the book, Gorman invites us to consider that to be in Christ is not merely an attempt to imitate Jesus’ actions or ethics, but to participate in the very Triune life of God, taking seriously the language Paul uses (for example) in Galatians 5:20 when he says: “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me…”

Today, I’m picking up on a conversation begun at the First Baptist Church’s facebook page, and delving into chapter three of the book: “Cruciform or Resurrectiform?”  Scot McKnight in the Jesus Creed blog is also following this book, so I’ll try not to duplicate his analysis here.

Again, following Paul’s emphasis on the cross as the definitive revelation of God’s character in Christ, and thus the implications for us who then are caught up in the life of Christ here and now, Gorman addresses a pretty important potential critique: what about the resurrection?  Should we not give equal (or more) emphasis to participation in the resurrection of Jesus as part of the Christian life?

In one sense, absolutely – apart from the resurrection, our faith is futile, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:16.  Yet Gorman’s provocative argument, following the pattern of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2:4-11 and 2 Corinthians, chapters 3-5, is that it is precisely when we are vulnerable and ‘weak’ in the eyes of the world, that God’s resurrection power is displayed.  It is in Jesus’ “downward mobility”, of letting go of privilege and status to be a servant in human form, obedient even to death on a cross, that exaltation occurs.

Where that challenges me is to wonder about how anxious we can get (as churches, as pastors, as people) about whether or not we have enough (time / money / resources) to accomplish God’s mission.  Perhaps our anxiety stems from our desire to have so much that we can accomplish it “on our own” – though we’d never actually say it that way.  Perhaps it is only as we are willing to participate in Christ’s downward mobility, realizing that it’s not about our sufficiency but God’s provision that allows God’s grace and love and resurrection power to be shown.

When we have enough, there’s no need for God to show up, except perhaps to pat us on the head and say ‘well done’!  And yet, being willing to faithfully step out where God calls us when we don’t have enough, into the unknown, that’s a dying to ourselves that allows us to see God at work; and that transforms us as well as the world.

Blessings on the Journey

-Pastor Brian

Gratitude

“O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name, make known his deeds among the peoples.”
– 1 Chronicles 16:8

Driving along rural roads in Illinois, one starts to see two sure signs that the seasons are indeed changing – the leaves are beginning to show their brilliant colors, and the farmers are busy in the field bringing in the harvest.
These rhythms of the year are also found in the festivals and offerings described in the Bible, as Rev. Cheri talked about on October 20. As the people of Israel planted and harvested the land, they were not only to bring in a portion of the first fruits from their fields, but to present them to the priests while telling the story of God’s faithfulness and love: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor… so now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5,10)

It’s not that God needed the grain or animals (remember, the offerings went to care for those who had no fields or ability to work them; the Levites who had no land, the foreigners among them, the orphans and widows). But notice how the act of giving along with the telling of the story helped people remember God’s grace (providing the harvest, and in bringing them to this place), and the implications of that grace – extending compassion and care for those who needed help, so that everyone could eat and rejoice together before the LORD.
These habits of life are meant to reinforce something simple but essential; being rooted in gratitude, remembering God’s presence and provision and living our lives in response to that.

Gratitude is not always easy. As I write this, I know of many people I hold dear who are facing enormous challenges and heart-wrenching situations. In such times, gratitude is not putting on a smile and pretending that everything is just fine. Sometimes gratitude is choosing to remember the past in order to hold on to the faith that our present circumstances are not the last word, trusting that God is present and working here and now whether we sense it in the moment or not, and anticipating the revealing of God’s future where, as Julian of Norwich said: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
In 1 Chronicles 16:8-36, we find a psalm calling us to praise God, to rejoice and to share the stories of God’s work. It is no accident that in the same breath, we find the invitation to seek God’s strength and salvation, along with remembering what God has done.

In times of plenty and when joy is easy, and when the road is hard; may we remember what God has done for us, and give God thanks – as an act of worship and as an act in which God shapes us to meet each day with the knowledge of God’s presence and work. May we join with the Apostle Paul, who said: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Blessings on the Journey,
-Pastor Brian