|Waldmar Flaig (1892-1932), Der Stern von Bethlehem (1920)|
3rd January 2016
This is a brilliant story that we have here in Matthew’s Gospel. There’s so much going on in twelve verses. Drama and danger. Mystery, suspense, and intrigue.
We have a frightened, insecure despot in King Herod (d. 4BC), who was actually King of Jews, declared king by the Roman Senate (in 37 BC), who ruled at the will and pleasure of Caesar Augustus (63BC-19AD).
We have magi or magicians or astrologers from some exotic place in the Orient. They show up from nowhere searching for a “child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), which is why Herod is so scared by their arrival because he’s supposed to be King of the Jews.
We really don’t know much about the magi, who they were or where they were from. We suspect they were from Persia. They certainly weren’t kings. We don’t know how many made the journey to Jerusalem. The old carol tells of “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” but the text doesn’t say this. And we don’t know their names. What we do know is that they’re “wise." They were priests. They definitely weren’t Jewish. They were Gentiles.
We have an entire city set on edge by their appearance. And we have chief priests and scribes of Israel, the religious authorities, scrambling, searching through their ancient texts to find a reference as to where the Messiah would be born. They remember: “Bethlehem, in the land of Judea.” Then Herod “secretly” (Mt 2:7), the text says, summons the wise men to discover the exact time the star appeared.
And then you have Mary, with the child Jesus (probably two years of age), with no mention of Joseph. The magi’s arrival at the home of Jesus called forth from within them worship, homage; “they knelt down,” and opened their “treasure chests” and offered him “gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Mt. 2:11). Then, being warned in a dream, they left by another road. Joseph, too, had a dream and was warned to flee, to seek refuge in Egypt (Mt. 2:13-15). When Herod discovered that these wise guys pulled a fast one on him, he was furious, and unleashed his fury on children and their families (Mt. 2:16-18). All because of the birth of a baby whose name means “God is with us.”
And there’s one other character in this story, something that moves the narrative along and it’s the star. It’s the brilliance of a star that weaves its way through the narrative. This is a star that moves. It’s a star that summons them to move. It’s a star that seems to be alive, intent on communicating with them. This star knows something that the wise men don't. This star is wise.
The seventeenth century scientist and theologian Thomas Browne (1605-1682) once wrote, “Ice splits starwise.” This is where the sermon title comes from. But I’m using this wonderful word, starwise, in a different way to talk about the wisdom of the star, a wisdom that captures the attention of people who are wise, wise enough to trust the wisdom of this star and go wherever it leads them, to destinations unknown.
Scholars and contemporary astronomers love to guess about the nature of this star. It fascinates us. But we don’t know what it was. Whatever it was it was no ordinary star. It was more like an ancient GPS system than an astronomical event. It moved for a period of time. It rose in the East and led them to Jerusalem. Then from Jerusalem they set out for Bethlehem, about seven miles away, “and there, ahead of them, went the star” (Mt. 2:9). And then the star “stopped” because they had arrived at the home (not a manger, but the home) of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. And, in a sense, the magi arrived home, although they had never been there before.
For the wise men, it’s all because of a star. But for the star they would never have left home. They had to leave home in order to discover what the star knew. And as they came to know, the brilliance of that star among stars mirrors and reflects the brilliance of God’s glory that was born in Bethlehem. Jesus’ appearance, the fullest manifestation of God’s glory and light in this child, is an epiphany—a manifestation of God’s glory, a light for the entire world to see, not only for backwater Bethlehem, but also for all the nations of the world. Gentiles, meaning the nations, will see in Jesus the glory of God.
In a remarkable section of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we have these words, which describe the meaning of Jesus’ birth. They’re written by someone who never read Matthew’s Gospel or Mark’s or Luke’s or John’s, who knew nothing of magi or shepherds or mangers, yet could write: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
It is no wonder that when the magi saw “that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Mt 2:10). Overwhelmed with joy. Joy overwhelms them. Joy knocks them off their feet. Joy causes them to kneel. The star did not fail them.
On this Sunday we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the birth of light, light that is all the more brilliant when it shines in darkness. The brilliance of the star is best revealed at night. The magi, seemingly, arrive at their destination at night.
The magi trust the wisdom of the star and are willing to go where it leads, leading them through the night, through the darkness. They place their trust in nature and the movement of the stars, this cosmos, to guide them. They assume that the cosmos, the universe, that God is on their side, working with them and for them. They have enormous trust, going off on this hard journey to a foreign land to find a baby. They have trust in Divine Providence leading the way. They must have second-guessed themselves countless times, thought themselves foolish, not wise, and yet they ventured forth into the unknown. They went.
Something of the same is asked of us. Trusting the providential care of God, we too are summoned forth on the journey of our lives, to follow the star that leads to the place of joy. Where is that place for you? What is the source of your deep joy? What star are you following? Is it the star of Bethlehem leading you to the Christ child? Will the star you’re following lead you to a similar place of joy? Or is the star your following leading you astray? These are good questions to ask here at the “gate of the year.”
Sometimes it’s tough to see the star. Sometime it’s tough to see the light that shows the way. But, like the wise men, we are called to trust. Sometimes, in order to discover the star, we have to go out into the night, enter into the darkness, and then wait for the star to appear.
Years ago, way up in a remote corner of the Isle of Skye in Scotland, I came across a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins (1875-1957), called God Knows, written in 1908. It was on a plaque on the wall of an old crofter’s cottage. One day Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth gave a copy of the poem to her father King George VI (1894-1952). He was so moved by the poem that he included it in his Christmas Day broadcast to the British Empire in the dark days of 1939.
“And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’
Many think the poem ends here because this is the section most often cited, but it continues.
“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”
The star of Bethlehem emerges in the dark.
This is the star that leads us to daybreak,
that leads us to the dawn,
the star that leads us to new light.
May it be so.
 Thomas Brown, The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, Vol. III (London: George Bell & Sons, 1889), 378.
 Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’s Birth (Harper One, 2007), 143ff.
 Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows,” The Desert (London, 1908). The poem also known as “The Gate of the Year.”