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Job 38.1-7, 31-33

Psalm 148.1-6

I Corinthians 15.39-46


Fifth Sunday of Easter

In the summer of 2015 while on sabbatical, Debbie and I and two other couples spent a week sailing the Cyclades Islands in the southern Aegean Sea.  Early one afternoon we sailed into the harbor at Mykonos, that island of the iconic windmills.  Our plan was to spend two nights on the island, with a day trip to neighboring Delos, which, as Greek mythology has it, was the birthplace of both Apollo, god of the sun, and his sister Artemis, goddess of the moon and the night.  Delos is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is only accessible by a state-sponsored ferry from Mykonos.  I was reading Homer’s Odyssey during the trip, and one of the small details I learned from it is that ancient sailors considered it a sign of good fortune to encounter dolphins while asea. Well, sure enough, as we sailed into Mykonos harbor we were escorted by two pairs of dolphins, two to portside and two to starboard.  And even though it was a rough morning’s sail – headwinds were topping out between 25 and 30knots – we welcomed the dolphins escort and decided it was a good sign of smoother sailing ahead.  And in a touch of irony, or grace, or a combination of both, when we left Mykonos two days later, you guessed it, we were escorted out of the harbor by two pairs of dolphins, two to portside, two to starboard.  It was a serendipitous moment and if it meant that Apollo and Artemis were watching over us, providential as well.

Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Mayan city of Yax Mutal began to rise in the tropical rain forest of northern Guatemala.  For the next thirteen centuries it grew to occupy twenty three square miles and consisted of more than 3000 structures – seven grand temples, a sprawling city square called the Acropolis, multiple bridges, plazas, waterways, stelae, tombs, palaces, civil offices and sacrificial altars.  The population of the city and its suburbs reached 100,000 by the year 700 CE.  But by the end of the millennium Yax Mutal, which today is known as the city of Tikal, was in ruins and the jungle moved in to reclaim the once-great city.  Today Tikal is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Delos, and archaeologists have been undertaking the meticulous and laborious process of unearthing the city, an effort that began in the mid-1950s.  To date, less than 2% of Tikal has been excavated, only about 45 buildings, but even they reveal what a sprawling metropolis it once was.

Two weeks ago today Debbie and I and cousins Holly and Paul spent the better part of the day getting to, visiting, and returning from Tikal:  we left our hotel in Belize at 6:00 am for the four hour ride to north-central Guatemala, we spent about four and a half on the site, and then another four hours back.  Our tour guide, whose name is Luis, was part Mayan and a veritable walking encyclopedia of Mayan history and civilization – and I have to confess that Luis,  at age 69, was not easy to keep pace with.  As we were climbing up and around one of the many terraced temples, I asked him how the city came to be laid out.  He motioned me over to a corner of the temple and said that if it were nighttime, and I used the edge of the building to direct my gaze, it would lead directly to a particular star or constellation, and that many of Tikal’s buildings were oriented toward different points in the night sky.  It reminded me once again, and not for the first time during our trip, of the importance of the stars, planets and constellations to every culture and generation.

“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 us, mortals that you care for us?”  The psalmist asks the question in the beloved 8th psalm, and it is a question that echoes through the Hebrew scriptures.  We heard a similar creation psalm, Psalm 148, this morning, “Praise God you sun and moon; praise God, all your shining stars!  Praise God, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!”  The ancient Hebrews, as with so many cultures around the world, were keenly aware of their skies.  The book of Job is a good example.  Much of book consists of Job wondering why he has suffered such a surfeit of misfortune:  at the beginning of the story Job loses his family, his livestock, his home and his livelihood.  He continually prays to God in an attempt to understand why and how such a thing can happen, while God listens in silence up until our reading this morning, which is the start of God’s response to Job’s pleading.  In God’s response, we get a glimpse of the grandeur of creation:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Who determined its measurements… On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together?”  Shades of the cornerstone of the Tikal temple!  Now, at first  blush, it sounds as though God is, well, pulling the God-card on Job:  How dare you question the creator of the universe?  But as we read on, we come to understand that the creator of the universe also turns an ear to even the most vulnerable of creatures, including the long-suffering Job, whose fortunes are restored by the end of the tale.  And it is during the divine disquisition in the 38th chapter, that we get a lesson in astronomy:  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?  Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with her children?”  The stars and the constellations were as much a benchmark for the Hebrews as they were for the Mayans, as they were for the Romans and Greeks and multiple civilizations before them.  We recognize Orion, the belted hunter, in God’s response, we may have heard of the Pleiades, sometimes known as the “seven sisters” in the constellation of Taurus.  And, as a bonus bit of trivia, how many of you drive a Subaru?  Did you know that the seven sisters, or stars, of the Pleiades are the stars that adorn the Subaru logo?  There is your astronomy lesson for the morning!  The Mazzaroth in Job corresponds to our Zodiac, and the Bear and her children represent Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.  It seems, in the response to Job, God includes brief lessons in both astronomy and astrology.

Much of the ancient city of Tikal was constructed in alignment with the heavens.  The various temples, the central acropolis, the Lost World which you see in this morning’s bulletin.  And it’s not just the buildings themselves:  the open-air main plaza is the site of the winter’s solstice celebration, as the sun angles into the center of the plaza just so on that one day of the year.  And as much as the stars and the skies figured into our trip into the jungles of western Belize and northeastern Guatemala during the latter part of our vacation, they also played a role in during the first week.  On our arrival in southern Belize, we boarded a charter sailboat and spent seven days sailing the coral barrier reefs of the western Caribbean.  We were miles off the mainland, far from any city or ambient light.  Since the sun set by seven o’clock each night, we had lots of time to sit out on the deck and watch the stars and constellations.  In that pitch dark night sky we picked out familiar constellations – yes, including Orion, the Big Dipper and the Bears, although it is difficult to see the Pleiades with the naked eye – and the Milky Way was clearly visible, although I confess we could not see the black hole at the center of it whose photos were just published this week.  Still, I know many of you have had the opportunity to view the stars against a pitch-black sky, and for me me it never gets old.  From ancient days the night sky has held a fascination for humanity, it has found its way into both the faith and wonder of our imagination, and I suspect it always will.

We had a similar experience when we sailed the Aegean – again, the pitch dark night sky was chockablock with satellites and stars, and we learned the ways they influenced the ancient Greeks’ worship.    Like Tikal, the island of Delos is an ancient community that has stood for centuries and is slowly being excavated – although, since Delos is as arid as Tikal is tropical, most of the remains are already either partially or fully exposed.  Among Delos’ many temples, altars and edifices is a phalanx of stone lions guarding the island, often compared to Egypt’s “Avenue of the Sphinxes.”  The display is called “The Terrace of the Lions,” dedicated to Apollo.  There were originally twelve when they were built, though now only seven remain.  Honoring the lion as an object of devotion also harkens back to the stars, as Arcturus, the lion, or the guardian, is the fourth brightest star in the night sky, positioned at the north galactic pole of the Milky Way.  And, in an interesting twist, some older translations of the book of Job include Arcturus in the list of the celestial bodies we heard this morning.

The apostle Paul wrote about the glory and the grandeur of the heavens in his first letter to the Corinthian Christians.  As we heard on Easter morning, the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians is Paul’s account of Jesus’ resurrection.  You heard Diane describe for us this morning the relationship between the resurrection and the heavenly order.  “There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies,” Paul wrote, “the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another.  There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.”  Whether it is the morning stars that sang together, the moon and the stars God has established, the chains of the Pleaides, the cords of Orion, the Mazzaroth in their season, the Bear with her children, or the glory of the sun, the moon and the stars, the temples of Tikal or the lions of Apollo, from ancient days until today the night sky has held a fascination for humanity, and has declared the glory of the heavens.  We can only stand in wonder and in awe before the galactic splendor of God’s handiwork.

And, as a postscript to our recent vacation, a fascinating bookend to both our Aegean and our Belizean adventures.  As we cruised out of Placencia Harbor at the start of our week of sailing, snorkeling  and stargazing, we were escorted out into the Caribbean by – that’s right, four dolphins, although they kept crossing from port to starboard as a group, under the keel and around the bow – they were playing more than anything else - they didn’t swim in pairs like they did in Greece.  And then, on our return a week later, at the mouth of Placencia Harbor, they greeted us home and swam us back in.  Serendipity?  Providence?  I’ll let you decide on that one.

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