‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Matthew 2:1-23 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you, from God, our Creator, and from our Savior Jesus, the Messiah, who is Christ the Lord. Amen.
We’ve really romanticized this story, haven’t we? It’s not often that we hear this full second chapter of Matthew on this day. Usually, on Epiphany, we hear only the story of the three magi and the star. Notice, I use the word “magi” instead of “wise men” because this is what they were - magi. Short for magician. Not the magicians that we know, but more like astrologers. Those who look to the stars and to the heavens for answers.
We’re romanticized this story, creating a myth that there were three magi, led by the star, from very far away. Assuming that, from the number of gifts in the story, there are three of them, although our text never says that.
We’ve romanticized the gifts themselves. The three gifts. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’ve created our own imagery around these gifts. That gold was given to represent Jesus as king. And of his kingly reign. Then frankincense. That it was given to represent Jesus in his priestly role, since this fragrant oil was used by the temple priests in their rituals of sacrifice. And, then, the third gift, myrrh, an oil used to prepare bodies for burial. Given to represent the sacrifice of Jesus. His death. For us.
We’ve developed such a lovely and romantic story around the coming of the magi, that it is hard to hear the entire story. The full story. Not only the story of the magi, who follow the star to find this new king. But, also the story of Herod. And of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Herod, a puppet king, controlled by Rome, claiming to have Jewish ancestry in order to get the position. And, then, there are the religious leaders. The ones who should have been the ones to know about this king, instead of these foreigners - these Gentiles - from the east. Both Herod and the religious leaders who are frightened by the possibility of a new king rising up to claim power. All of Jerusalem, which was the center of power. Threatened by a baby.
And, then, there is the worst part of the story, a story that is often called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” The killing of children two years old and under. Out of fear and out of Herod’s anger at the act of civil disobedience by the magi. As they, not trusting Herod, disobey his order to return and tell him where this new king is. With the result that Herod, in his fury, orders innocent children to be killed.
Perhaps we have romanticized this Epiphany story, glossing over all of the evil, because it feels too close to home. Too close to our own world, two thousand years later.
And, yet, if we look closely at this story, there are those small places of hope. Those small lights in the midst of the darkness. There is the warning to the magi in a dream to return another way. Instead of via Jerusalem and without providing intelligence about the child to Herod.
There is the angel who appears to Joseph again, in a dream. And warns him to go to Egypt. To take Mary and the child and flee. To become refugees in a land that once imprisoned and enslaved Joseph’s ancestors. To be safe from Herod.
And, then, there is the very star itself. Called the Bethlehem Star. That, if you listened carefully to the story this morning, you heard that the magi first noticed it at its rising. That it was lost along the way. Yet, that after the magi had set out from Jerusalem, it appeared once again. Leading them and then stopping over the very place where the young Jesus was.
I stumbled upon an article this week by Craig Chester, an astronomer who co-founded the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. This Star of Bethlehem, he writes, “is a mystery and a puzzle, involving not only theology and astronomy, but also history and even astrology.”
Theologians and astronomers and historians for years have struggled over this story. Trying to understand who the Magi were. Where they came from. When they might have appeared in Judea. Trying to connect historical timelines with astronomical knowledge to find out if this story of the star and of the magi is true. Even though, for us, we know that the gospels are not written necessarily for historical or other scientific purposes, but to provide theological understanding for God’s people.
And, yet, Dr. Chester tells this story, from his perspective as an astronomer. That in 3 and 2 BC, astronomers know that there were a series of close conjunctions involving Jupiter. Interestingly, the planet Jupiter represents kingship, coronations, and the birth of kings. In Hebrew, Jupiter was known as Sedeq or “righteousness,” a term that was also used for the Messiah.
In September of 3 BC, for example, the planet Jupiter came into conjunction with Regulus, the star of kingship, in the brightest constellation of Leo, which was the constellation of kings. It was also a constellation associated with the Lion of Judah - a reference that is made in Hebrew scripture to the Messiah. In that month, the royal planet approached the royal star in the royal constellation representing Israel. Just a month earlier, Jupiter and Venus, the Mother planet and the planet of love, had almost seemed to touch each other in another close conjunction, also in Leo. And, then, the conjunction between Jupiter and Regulus was repeated. Not once, but twice, in February and May of 2 BC. Finally, in June of 2 BC, Jupiter and Venus, the two brightest objects in the sky except for the sun and the moon, experienced an even closer encounter when their disks appeared to touch. To the naked eye they became a single bright object above the setting sun.
Chester argues that the Magi, being the skilled astrologers that they were, could not have missed this exceptionally rare spectacle. That the astrological significance of these events must have been seen by them as the announcement of the impending birth of a great king of Israel.
Now all of this is incredibly fascinating. At least, it was to me. But there’s one more observation made by Dr. Chester. You see, planets normally move eastward through the stars, not westward as they would have had to move to reach Bethlehem. They also regularly exhibit what are called retrograde loops, which are points in the sky when they appear to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (or westward) through the sky for weeks. As a planet nears the end of a retrograde loop, it slows, stops, and then resumes its eastward course. Chester argues that it seems plausible that the Magi were “overjoyed” at again seeing before them His star - Jupiter - which, at its stationary point, was standing still over Bethlehem. He argues this because astronomers know for certain that Jupiter performed a retrograde loop in 2 BC. And that it was at its stationary point on December 25th.
Now, I don’t know the truth or even the significance of Dr. Chester’s article. What I do know, though, is that, as we read through this story that has both great joy and deep sadness, we see these points of light appearing in the midst of darkness. Dreams. Angels. A Star. Points of light that guide the magi and Joseph out of darkness. Small moments of guidance. Moments of God’s guidance.
Because this, I think, is how God guides us throughout our lives. Through small points of light - star gifts - small moments that lead us out of darkness to the light and the joy of the incarnation. To the coming of God to earth to be present with us for all time.
And, so, this morning, I have a small point of light for you. We call these Star Gifts. There are a number of stars here. On each is a word that I would like you to reflect on for the coming year. Hang it somewhere, where you can see it every day. And, then, like Mary, ponder the significance of this Word on your life this year. Wonder how God might be speaking to you through this simple Word. Notice that you are not asked to give anything, but invited to receive. Because this is always the order of things in God’s realm - God always gives first. And then we are invited to respond with our gifts and ourselves.
May this star gift provide for us moments this year to ponder the incarnation of God. How God comes to us. How God speaks to us. And how God guides us, just as God did the magi so very long ago. Amen.
Preached January 6, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Feast of Epiphany
Readings: Matthew 2:1-23; Psalm 96:10-13