WHEN THE STARS BEGIN TO FALL
Mark 13: 24-37
American writer William Sydney Porter is best known by his pen name “O. Henry.” From his pen the world received many works, perhaps most famously “The Ransom of Red Chief” and “The Gift of the Magi.” He is most famously known for his short stories. The one I’m citing today is “The Last Leaf.” Sue and Joanna, known as “Johnsy” in that short story, had an art studio. One woman was from Maine the other from California. They had met in New York where they were both currently living. One day Johnsy comes down with pneumonia—then as today, a frightening condition. She lays in her bed, stymied in her artwork and begins to develop a gloomly outlook on her life. Outside of her window is a vine that climbs up the side of a building. It is the time of year when the vine leaves are turning color and dropping. She begins to count them, reporting when there are only 12 left, then 11, then 10 and so on. Her friend Sue didn’t know what Johnsy was counting as she looked out the window. “Leaves,” says Johnsy. “On the ivy vine. When the last one falls I must go too….” “I never heard such nonsense!” Sue exclaims to Johnsy. What have old ivy leaves to do with you getting well?”
“In the same apartment building, an elderly, frustrated artist named Behrman lives below Johnsy and Sue. Behrman has been claiming that he will paint a masterpiece, even though he has never even attempted to start. Sue visits Behrman, telling him that Johnsy, who is dying of pneumonia, is losing her will to live. Sue tells Behrman that Johnsy claims she will die when the last leaf falls off of the vine outside her window. Behrman scoffs at this as foolishness, but—as he is protective of the two young artists—he decides to visit Johnsy and see the vine from her window.
In the night, a very bad storm comes and wind is howling and rain is splattering against the window. Sue closes the curtains and tells Johnsy to go to sleep, even though there is still one leaf left on the vine. Johnsy protests against having the curtains closed, but Sue insists on doing so because she doesn’t want Johnsy to see the last leaf fall. In the morning, Johnsy wants to see the vine to be sure that all the leaves are gone, but to their surprise, there is still one leaf left.” [Wikopedia]
The leaf does not fall. Johnsy looks at it differently; perhaps it is there to teach her that wanting to die is no way to go. So she changes her attitude and rallies, in part because the last leaf never fell. Her recovery is continuous from that point on, all because the last leaf didn’t fall. What she did not know until she was better is that, because Berhman had heard the story of Johnsy’s illness, when her curtains were drawn he had carefully painted a leaf on the wall where the ivy was, and in doing so, got badly chilled, got sick with pneumonia, and it was he who died from it. Johnsy lived on, deciding not to let a last leaf dictate her time of death.
Today we hear words from the lips of Jesus in Mark 13. In those words many perceived that our Lord was telling people to actually pay attention to what was around them. That’s the first message. “Pay attention to what’s around you.” Farmers years ago learned to watch the skies, and their animals, and to notice the direction of the wind to make good predictions about rainfall and sunlight for their crops and livestock. Before the dawn of Doppler radar and other meteorological instruments, farmers often relied on “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” still in print and consulted by many. And last week, with all the instruments they had at hand, weathercasters helped us prepare for drastic drops and rises in temperature, and for the huge amount of rainfall we received. Weathercasting is not perfect, but its instruments can help us prepare for the weather ahead. If only there were such gauges for the Stock Market! Those who spend their life following the market can only say what is historically true: that is, they can only use the past as a future predictor! And they usually speak in generalities. Scientists also watch our polar ice caps with concern as warmer climates continue to fill the earth with more water and less ice. In Florida, climate change is much harder to notice than in other states. When I visited my parents in Missouri in October, the maple tree in the back yard was filled with color when I arrived. That night there were high winds and some rain. By the time I left three days later, the tree was almost bare. To look out the window of that house, two days made all the difference in the world.
In Biblical times even as today, wise persons watched the stars. The practices of astronomy and astrology were not different as today; they were the same science. So long before Jesus was born, Magi in the East watched the stars. Falling stars had meaning; and stars that seemed to move because of the rotation of the earth had meaning. Some of the larger lights, or course, were planets. In Boy Scouts I earned an Astronomy merit badge by looking at and learning how to identify stars in the night sky. It is best done far away from city lights! And though they are beautiful, I do not use stars to decide the direction of my life. Nor do I use horoscopes to do that. But in those days, wise persons learned many things from the stars. Some of them, in the East long before Jesus was born, could tell that something was going to happen in the Kingdom of Judah; a new king was to born!
Fairly recently, there was a new theory by a lawyer from Texas. We showed the film about the Star of Bethlehem two years ago. His name is Rick Larson, who found that “there was a triple conjunction of Jupiter and the star Regulus (which is in the constellation of Leo the Lion), followed by a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in Leo ninth months later. And then six months after that Jupiter ‘stops’ (goes into retrograde) in Virgo.
The country/nation of Israel is often referred to as the ‘Lion of Judah’ so this meeting would have been important. Then nine months (the time of a pregnancy) later in June … Jupiter and Venus (the planet of mothers) meet in Leo (in the West over Israel) and would have been a very bright ‘star’ indeed! Then if you were in Jerusalem looking south, towards Bethlehem, Jupiter would be ‘standing’ in Virgo, the constellation of the Virgin! [The Star of Bethlehem DVD, MPower Pictures, 2009.]
Jesus words in Mark 13. Should they make us watch the stars; or watch the leaves; or watch the weather? Is he not describing his coming in powerful metaphors? And is he not, right after that, saying “but of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed and watch, for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13: 32-33)
So the second message might be “Notice what is around you, but do not let what you see decide major events in your life for you.” Yes, the fig tree gives a lesson for farmers; but metaphorically it says something to us too: time is marching on. What do you need to do to prepare for the birth, or even the second coming of Christ? The stars, or leaves, or the wind will not tell you when he will come. Christians conveniently made December 25th Jesus’ birthday, but in actually we don’t know the day of his birth. So even though you know when you’ll celebrate his birth, we don’t know the time of his return. We are told to “watch,” but more than that, I believe, Jesus would have us tend to our affairs, doing what is most important in life, particularly regarding others. Not just at Christmas, but always, have your eyes open to the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised. That’s what Jesus would do. Also, do not let outside events convince you about the time of your death, for you may find you are hanging that hat on the wrong peg. Live your life fully, lovingly, and forgivingly, connecting with others. In so doing your soul will be still and at peace, even when the stars begin to fall.
Let us pray:
O Creator of the stars of night: teach us to appreciate creation, to love one another, and to not give up on this life before we move to the next. May this Advent season include watching, celebrating, and contemplating the life you have given to us and to others. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 30, 2014