First Sunday after Epiphany, January 10th, 2021

First Sunday after Epiphany, January 10th, 2021

“How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”

Ursula Schmidt

As a member of a family with 2 generations of pastors I treasure the tradition of my father and grandfather that preaching is truly a privilege and a delight.

Thank God I am married to a pastor who also loves to preach. Lucky me.

So, I appreciate Father Steve asking me to preach today, and I hope you don´t get irritated with me, even before you heard my sermon because I sometimes may put too much heart in it.

Last Wednesday morning we celebrated a wonderful Epiphany morning prayer on Zoom with St. Augustine, Wiesbaden, and in the evening, we enjoyed a Zoom quiz about Epiphany. We had a good many laughs while learning a lot as well.

And right after we had been in high spirits, we were confronted with the unspeakable terror in Washington DC, and I asked myself: “How will I be able to preach about the glorious light of Epiphany in the face of this horror?”

In spite of the shockwaves I gradually realized how necessary it is to preach about the light of Epiphany, especially today.

Even when the hopes of our world and our personal anticipations are darkened by terror and fear, the light which we believe is Christ is shining.

Even at times when things around us seem so unsafe and dangerous that we are blindfolded and not able to see this light, it is always there.

Even when the music is silenced by the command of no public singing,

this light is shining, and the music of our hymns composed “soli deo Gloria”, to the glory of the Lord, is prevailing.

My sermon will try to reflect this miracle of light and music shining and sparkling within a German hymn from the 16th century: “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” by Philipp Nicolai.

Philipp Nicolai was born in times of political, cultural and religious conflicts and tribulations.

Queen Elizabeth restored the British empire, the Netherlands achieved its independence from Spain, and in France the protestant Huguenots were persecuted by the Catholic church.

In Germany the aristocrats saw their chance of gaining more individual political power, mainly because of a law that whoever reigned had the right to determine the religion of the people who lived under their government.

In addition to this conflict there was a hostile battle between the various denominations fighting for the right interpretation of the reformation which actually became a war of churches and faith.

In our secular society of today we can hardly understand the bitterness and acrimony of this fight between the denominations. In fact, we are quite shocked when we read about their disputes, which were often full of malice and hatred.

Philipp Nicolai, born 1556 in Westphalia, became immediately involved in the battle between the denominations when he started his first position as a minister.

He was driven out of his congregation and had to preach in a so-called house church in the underground for a while in Cologne before he became a pastor in Unna.

As a strict Lutheran Nicolai fought aggressively against the Catholics and all non-Lutherans.

But then something happened which changed the priorities of his life: In 1596 the big plague broke out. Fighting dogmatically his two-front war became more and more irrelevant for him because of this epidemic.

From July 1597 to January 1598, over 1,400 of Pastor Nicolai’s parishioners died because of the plague. During the worst of it, 170 people died during one week. Philipp Nicolai had to bury 20 or 30 people per day.

Philipp Nicolai who like all pastors at that time lived near the cemetery grounds, saw all the funeral processions from the window of his house day after day, could not flee from reality.
He could not turn away and distract himself by writing furious booklets against what he thought to be the wrong believers.

The misery and the pain all around him forced him to question his own faith and his attitude towards his neighbors. Reading, studying and meditating on the Bible and the Scriptures opened him a way for a personal faith and a new vision of life and his fellow men.

As a result, Philipp Nicolai wrote a book titled Mirror of the Joys of Eternal Life, which was meant as a comfort for those who were sick, dying, or mourning.
Included were two hymns, “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”.

Throughout the centuries these two hymns, tunes and lyrics by Philipp Nicolai became so powerful that they are called respectively the King and Queen of the Chorales.
Philipp Nicolai was so intensely involved in working on the hymn “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” that he often forgot to eat and drink.

Shortly before his death in 1608 he wrote quite drastically to his brother: “I am drowning in my work, but I trust in God and in my Lord Jesus Christ. It is better to work oneself to death in God than to booze oneself to death.

Actually, Philipp Nicolai worked himself to death, living like a candle burning on two ends.

He died when he was only 52 years old, fatigued and exhausted, after he had blessed all his loved ones.

Today Philipp Nicolai `s aggressive disputations against other denominations had become meaningless and forgotten, but not so his two hymns.

How Lovely Shines the Morning Star”, the Queen of the Chorales, is an illustrious and much-loved Epiphany hymn, sparkling with the glory of God.

Philipp Nicolai called it with baroque emphasis “A spiritual bridal song of the faithful souls believing in Jesus Christ as their heavenly bridegroom”.

This title is a reference to the image of the heavenly marriage between the soul and Christ, the soul, the believer is the bride, — Christ is the bridegroom the believer is yearning for.

Today this may sound strange to us, but in former times it was meaningful to people who were more familiar with images of the Bible than us biblical illiterates.

The depth, the abundance and the color of PN`s original words is somehow lost in the English translation, but nevertheless it reflects the atmosphere full of light and joy: 

How lovely shines the Morning Star!
The nations see and hail afar
the light in Judah shining.
Thou David’s Son of Jacob’s race,
my Bridegroom and my King of Grace,
for Thee my heart is pining.
Lowly, holy,
great and glorious,
thou victorious
Prince of graces,
filling all the heav’nly places.

The 6 verses of the original hymn are a “shaped poem”. The words match visually the topic: they show the shape of a communion chalice —- the chalice as a symbol for the foretaste of the immense and incomprehensible glory of our Lord God which became incarnate for us in his son Jesus. 

Don´t be afraid, my sermon won´t become a Baroque sermon, lasting at least 1 ½ hours by interpreting now every verse and each metaphor of this hymn. I rather concentrate on the image of the “morning star”.

For an astronomer
 Venus is the morning star; it is the brightest star of all.

When the sky is clear, Venus is the first star you see in the evening and the last star you see in the morning. As the morning star it appears when the sky is dark and signals the beginning of a new day, which has not yet become visible.

For a Christian Jesus Christ is the morning star, — maybe at times inconspicuous, but always existent, present and ongoing. 

For Philipp Nicolai the “morning star” reflects:

  • the word of God, spoken through the prophets and the evangelists
  • the grace of God and our salvation through the incarnation of his son Jesus Christ
  • Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” of life
  • the Holy Communion, our heavenly “manna”, a foretaste of the eternal life
  • the reason for us to glorify the “bridegroom” Jesus Christ, rejoicing with songs and instruments.

For Philipp Nicolai the morning star is not a cold abstract idea far away, but the living image of God revealing himself to us in Jesus Christ our Messiah.

For us today the outbreak of the pandemic is frightening and devastating. Covid 19 has darkened and destroyed so many lives, the restrictions create so much gloom, fear and pessimism that we Germans avoid German words for it. We rather use euphemisms, whitewashing metaphors such as social distance and home schooling to describe our situation.  For some people hope seems to be extravagant or delusive.

For Philipp Nicolai the morning star Jesus Christ shines even in the middle of the great plague. The rays of the morning star penetrate all shadows of the darkness and cannot be outshined, not even by death. The morning star transforms the gloomy misery and mortal desolation into a joyous hope and jubilant anticipation.

The historical background of the hymn “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star” shows striking parallels to our present time:

  • In the 16th century people suffered under the black plague.
    Today all mankind suffers under the covid 19 pandemic.
  • Both epidemics influence and shape lives:
    PN´s behavior and lifestyle were radically changed by the black plague.
    His dogmatic fights became irrelevant. Concentrating and meditating on the Scriptures became his priorities.
    —- Today many people have lost their jobs and fear for their future existence.  Some people hoard groceries and household supplies: remember the irrational run for toilet paper several months ago.
  • Both epidemics eventually open ways for hope and love:
    PN´s personal faith led to sharing his joys of eternity with his fellow men.
    —- Today people who rarely cared for their neighbors became their shopping helpers or started musical flash mobs. 
  • Both epidemics force us to reflect and renew our faith.
    PN wrote two hymns which shine not only in his time and age but through the centuries.
    — Today churches and congregations discuss and organize new service arrangements, people contemplate more how to put their individual belief into action.

Digging into the treasure of our hymn books,
reading and singing them, alone and someday again together in church,
reflect the glory of God,
echo the belief of centuries,
and show us the strength of faith.

Let´s be grateful for this immense treasure of our hymns
by using it more often and regularly. AMEN