As a kid, my two great loves were science and exploration. I would consume the National Geographic the second it arrived in the mail, and my bedroom was festooned with space posters, photos, astronomic charts, and lunar maps. I faithfully read the New York Times Science and Technology section every Sunday afternoon. I so wanted to be an explorer, or maybe a Scientist! In fact, for a long time my ultimate goal was to become an Astronaut, or perhaps an Astronomer!
But, becoming an Astronaut was simply not possible for someone as nearsighted as I am. So much for that dream, things change.
That left Astronomy, which I pursued diligently for a long time. In fact, I audited a college level Astronomy class in 9th grade.
I loved our late night labs in that course, hauling out the telescopes and looking at the moon, planets and stars. Plus, hanging with college kids late at night was – ah – educational. That class was really fun, and cool – not to mention cold, there in Wyoming in the late fall!
What you soon learn when you regularly and carefully observe the celestial sphere is that the Sun, Moon and stars circle overhead, faithfully following their courses year after year. True, the planets wander, but even their wanderings have a regular pattern. And so, particularly for the ancients, nothing about the heavens is random. All the movements they saw were very regular, very repetitive and very predictable. From the point of view of the ancients, the only things that broke the rules were an occasional eclipse, or the rare comet. When such things occurred, their strangeness, unpredictability and frightening appearance were often taken as evidence of turmoil in the heavens: a sign of supernatural displeasure, great catastrophes, and doom.
But then we have the star in this morning’s reading.
Matthew’s first words about it are this: “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” And, it’s clear from the next portion of this passage that they are following that star as it moves across the heavens.
These Wise Men from the EAST saw the star rising in the WEST. But, wait a second, in what direction does everything: sun, moon, planets, and stars, rise?
Exactly. So, why are they travelling WEST to follow it?
The only answer is because the star is rising IN THE WEST: opposite from everything else in the sky. Even those unpredictable comets rise in the East!
And then, even more amazing, after the Wise Men leave Herod’s Court this star begins to move again and abruptly changes course: heading Southwest from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem, then STOPS over a stable there.
This astral apparition isn’t behaving at all like anything else that had ever been seen in the sky. To the ancients, this would have been a big deal, since not only the divine order of things, but their yearly cycle for everything was founded upon the motions of the heavens.
If the heavens were no longer predictable, then very scary things were happening. How would you tell when to plant crops? When to harvest them? When to shear your sheep? When will winter come? When do the annual feasts and festivals occur? And who is in charge up there at the top? There is no way to tell, because the old rules no longer apply!
We then read “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” The King was chosen by God, the God whose will was made known only through the priests in the temple. The entire structure of power and privilege that dominated Judaism and Israel assumed that the King and the Priesthood and the Temple and Jerusalem’s position as the City of God had all been decreed by God. It was the divine order of things; beyond challenging or appeal. But now the perfect, predictable and unchanging Heavens themselves are chaotic.
There is something else here that is equally unsettling: these gentiles from far away come to Jerusalem and ask “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” Wait – gentiles are announcing that there is a new King of the Jews, and want to pay homage?
That would be like people from some foreign country suddenly appearing at the White House, announcing who our next President will be, and offering to administer the oath of office! (Well, actually, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad…)
But, isn’t it the Priests’ job, with God’s guidance, to confirm who the next King will be, and to anoint them? Why is some foreigner doing it?
Matthew piles even more on to this: at the end of Chapter 1, we’re told God is now talking to Jews other than the Priests – to Joseph and Mary, uneducated bumpkins from Galilee of all places. They are told a new Prophet, greater than any before, a true Son of God, is to be born to Mary. And now the Wise Men say this is actually a prophet-King, the first since David, from whom this child is descended. His pedigree is better than Herod’s – who is a foreigner: and so challenges Herod’s legitimacy as King, and undermines the priesthood and upper classes that support him.
The very foundations the Monarchy and the Kingdom’s security and order are being threatened by Heaven itself, through this disturbing news from gentiles and country peasants. No wonder Herod and all of Jerusalem are alarmed by this new star and by the words of these Wise Men from the East. Things are no longer as they should be. The old order that had once seemed so firm and reliable now has no foundation.
How do the priests react to all this? When Herod secretly asks them where to find this new King, they respond “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet….”
The priests knew all the time what would happen, but are blasé about it all – not acting on what they knew. They accepted the news, but are passive – not taking the initiative act on or tell the King what they knew. Maybe they are afraid to warn Herod, fearful he might chop off their heads (a real possibility). Maybe they want life to stay like it is; after all, passivity and denial are usually safe – at least in the short run.
Everything that the old order in Israel relied-on has been broken. The source of their authority is erased by the arrival of a new King; and the stars, which they rely on for prophesy, for marking the seasons, and determining the time of all the important temple rituals, are also broken. Nothing makes sense any more. The old ways no longer work. The responses are denial and murderous scheming on the part of the King, denial and passivity on the part of the priests and scribes; and fear among many who live in the Holy City.
Matthew has set the stage for what will come in the rest of his Gospel. We will soon see Jesus and his family fleeing Herod’s rage. They will become refugees living in exile until they can return to their hometown, Nazareth.
Not only is Jesus a fulfillment of Prophesy, and ordained to be the Great King of the Jews, he is also an outsider –a fugitive, hunted by those who reject the new order that his birth portends. As Matthew’s story unfolds, we will see him rejected over and over by those in power. We will see the prophesies and foreshadowings (in these opening scenes of Matthew’s Gospel) fulfilled at its end, when Jesus rises to eternal life after being murdered by those who have rejected him since his birth.
But Matthew’s Gospel is not rejecting the Jews as a people, nor their faith. His words are a statement that many of those with power, position and privilege in that time and place abdicated their responsibilities to the people of God and had even – in Matthew’s eyes – rejected the Word of God itself.
So I wonder: is the Star of Bethlehem simply a new light in the sky, announcing the new things being done by God? Or, is it also revealing the changes (both Good and Bad), and the darkness and the brokenness, that are already here?
The leaders in Jesus’ time rejected the New Light because it revealed to all that they walked in Darkness, refusing to answer God’s call to return to the Light. They could not believe that God’s will was being communicated through the poor, and even through foreigners. They could not accept that God’s grace was for all, not just for them. This revelation is just as relevant now, as it was then.
Is the new light really all that radical and scary, or is it evidence that our understanding of God and God’s will for us, cannot be static, that it must be ever changing and ever growing?
Change is scary, change is hard: especially change such as this, over which we have no control. God knows this.
Our world is so unsettled right now, with so much that we once thought to be firmly established being called into question. We see people desperately holding on to that which they have believed for so long: dying churches, changing economies, vanishing industries and the jobs and prosperity they once supplied, pollution, overpopulation, and climate change. We acquiesce to bigotry and to fractious and divisive politics as our leaders propose simple and shallow solutions for the deep brokenness and confusion all around us.
None of this is good. The old rules no longer apply. Change is painful. And, we can’t rely on what was to find our path into the future. The church won’t do it. New political leaders won’t do it. And neither new technologies, nor human effort, nor denial will do it. No miracle is going to return things to the way they were. We must accept this; but not the acceptance of the priests and scribes – not passive acceptance, which is ultimately a form of surrender.
This is the message of the Gospels: that which is old is passing away. A new and wonderful thing is happening. We must also accept this – and rejoice in it – but an active acceptance: spreading the news and turning our feet onto the paths we are called to follow – as the wise men did.
The light of that star reveals the brokenness and darkness that surrounds us and which was always there, but now the veil behind which it was hidden is torn – as we see physically demonstrated later, in Chapter 27. The new star reveals how inadequate human effort is, and reveals the destructiveness of hubris and denial. But, it also brings the promise of God’s perfect gift, lying in that manger, the promise that new and better things are to come, and indeed are already here, and that God’s will and love for us can never be denied or defeated.
As Matthew assures us through the words of Jesus at the very end of his gospel: “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Fear Not! For in Jesus the dream becomes reality and the light he brings will never die.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, January 3, 2016; (Epiphany).
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)