The Magi had time to think. Their journey from the east to the little town of Bethlehem likely took them a month or longer. All that time, they had virtually nothing else to think about but this newborn King they were going to see, and what it meant that God had kept his promise to send a Savior into this world.
That’s so often our problem. We don’t have time to think. Some of us are chasing from place to place trying to keep up with demands on our time. Some of us may have all kinds of time, but our brain space is still filled to capacity by things that concern us or worry us. There’s too much on our calendar, or there’s too much on our mind, or maybe it’s some of both. But are we the victims? In either case, let’s be honest: in our hearts and in our minds, each of us must say, “There’s too much me.” We’re so caught up with ourselves, our needs, our wants, our fears, that there’s hardly time to think about anything else.
What would it be like to spend hours and hours just dwelling on the beauty of God’s grace? A Lutheran pastor from sixteenth century Germany was granted a golden opportunity to do just that. His name was Philipp Nicolai. He was born just ten years after Martin Luther died. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel was still relatively new, and so as a pastor, Nicolai had his hands full dealing with those who wanted to keep him quiet. To make matters worse, there was a horrible plague that struck the land. In the worst year of the plague thirteen hundred people in his small town died. On one day there were thirty from his congregation who died and were buried, and the cemetery was just outside his parsonage window.
It might not sound like a golden opportunity, but it was. During this time, Nicolai read scriptures and prayed. For long periods of time, he contemplated God’s teaching about eternal life through the blood of Christ. He wrote a book of devotions called Mirror of Joy, and he included some hymns in the back of the book. One of them was the hymn: How Lovely Shines the Morning Star, for which he wrote both the words and the music. It’s not hard for us to guess Nicolai’s motives in writing this hymn. If you can’t figure it out from reading the words, then take note of this: each of the seven original verses of this hymn began with a letter from the name of one of Nicolai’s dear Christian friends who had died in the plague.
Nicolai dealt with untold bitterness in his life, and so do we. It’s hard enough to have to deal with death. We can try to avoid the thinking about it, but eventually it catches up to our loved ones and so also to us, and it breathes its iciness into our soul. It’s hard enough to deal with all of the bitterness of this world, all the trouble and pain and suffering we endure. What is worse is to know why there is such bitterness and death in the first place. We have each turned from God, and so now we have guilt and fear, anxiety and anguish, tribulation and hardships. Now our souls are restless, and we long for relief, for comfort, for rest!
With this hymn, Nicolai remembers what God has done for us. He sent us David’s Son of Jacob’s race, a Savior who is both lowly and holy, true Son of God and Mary’s Son. He had to be true God because we need a Savior without any sin of his own. He had to be human because we need a substitute whose life and death would count in our place. By his death, that Savior has taken away our sin. Now he has risen and rules, Great and glorious, O victorious Prince of graces, Filling all the heavenly places. And he has made a friend of me.
Where else can our restless souls find the peace and joy of God’s love and forgiveness? Where else can our restless souls rest secure and safe in God’s love, no matter what is happening in us and around us? No where else. Lord, Sighing, Crying For the savor Of your favor, Resting never Till I rest in you forever.
So Jesus is the rest our souls so desperately need, a safe place in a world where nothing else is ever safe or secure. But he is even more than that. Look at the first two words of the hymn: How lovely! In his Word and Sacraments, God draws us in to see how rich and beautiful his grace is.
Jesus is your Morning Star, your light in every dark place, your promise of a new day in God’s good grace. He is your Bridegroom who loves you more than any groom has ever loved any bride, who has sacrificed his life for you and who now lives to shower you with the blessings of his love. He is your Vine who supplies you, his branch, not just with life but with the ability to bear fruit that will last, even when the world around you looks like a desert wilderness. He is your Eternal Friend, your Alpha and Omega, your beginning and your end. Your Savior is God’s answer to your anxiety, your fear, your grief, your loneliness, your tribulation, your pain, your sin, your death.
What was it like for Philipp Nicolai to dwell on the grace and goodness of God’s saving love for hours, days, weeks? In the preface to his book of devotions, Nicolai wrote about what it did for him: I found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content. What was it like for the Magi to dwell on the grace and goodness of God throughout their long trip to Bethlehem, following that star in the sky? We’re told that they were overjoyed.
Is it possible that God might have similar blessings in store for you and me? He does! There is bitterness everywhere in this world and in our own hearts, too. There is sin everywhere in this world and in our own hearts, and the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. There is nothing more wonderful, more beautiful, more peaceful for our souls than to be able to think and dwell upon than him and the eternal life he has won for us by the shedding of his blood. Even eternity won’t be able to lessen the peace and the joy we have in him. He is our heavenly bridegroom, an endless source of love, and he has given us all eternity to drink it in. How lovely shines the morning star!
How Lovely Shines the Morning Star
by Philipp Nicolai
1 How lovely shines the Morning Star! The nations see and hail afar
The light in Judah shining.
O David's Son of Jacob's race, My Bridegroom and my King of grace,
For you my heart is pining.
Lowly, Holy, Great and glorious, O victorious Prince of graces,
Filling all the heav'nly places.
2 O highest joy by mortals won, True Son of God and Mary's Son,
The highborn King of ages!
In your blest body let me be, E'en as the branch is in the tree,
Your life my life supplying.
Sighing, Crying For the savor Of your favor
Resting never Till I rest in you forever.
3 O mighty Father, in your Son You loved me ere you had begun
This ancient world's foundation.
Your Son has made a friend of me, And when in spirit him I see,
I joy in tribulation.
What bliss Is this! He is living, To me giving
Life forever; Nothing me from him can sever.
4 Oh, joy to know that you, my Friend, Are Lord, beginning without end,
The first and last, eternal!
And you at length -- O glorious grace -- Will take me to that holy place,
The home of joys supernal.
Amen, Amen! Come and meet me, Quickly greet me! With deep yearning,
Lord, I look for your returning.
5 Lift up the voice and strike the string, Let all glad sounds of music ring
In God's high praises blended.
Christ will be with me all the way, Today, tomorrow, ev'ry day
Till trav'ling days are ended.
Sing out, Ring out Triumph glorious, O victorious Chosen nation;
Praise the God of your salvation.
Devotion by Pastor Jon Zabell
Copyright (c) 2022, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Green Bay, WI 54301
Hymn Text, public domain