A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 4, 2015
Matthew 2:1-12 KJV
In a Washington Post article this past week about the Bethlehem star, David A. Weintraub notes that the star of Bethlehem gives rise to any number of astronomical questions. “Is the star’s biblical description a pious fiction or does it contain some astronomical truth?” he asks.1 Weintraub rightly notes that stars do not move, as Matthew’s story seems to imply. He says, “virtually all the stars remain fixed in their places.” “The astronomer in me knows that no star can do these things [i.e., move at random to a designated place], nor can a comet, or Jupiter, or a supernova, or a conjunction of planets or any other actual bright object in the nighttime sky.” However, by the end of the article, Weintraub concedes that an actual astronomical occurrence involving Jupiter which began in April in the year 6 B.C. is a possible explanation for the star the wise men are said to have seen in the east.
The writer of the gospel of Matthew is the only writer in the New Testament to make mention of Wise Men traveling to visit the Christ Child. And he is the only one to make mention of the star that has played such a prominent role in Christmas pageants down through the ages. From whence came the star in Matthew’s nativity story? Was there a special star that shone over the place where Jesus was born? Was it a comet? An unusual alignment of the planets? Many have been, and continue to be, the theories over the centuries attempting to explain through natural phenomena the so-called “Star of Bethlehem.”
But we must also ask if Matthew’s star is to be taken literally, or if, perhaps, the star in Matthew’s story is more symbolic or mythological in nature, holding a deeper meaning than the literal, physical star in the sky.
As we read and seek to interpret Matthew’s gospel, we do well to remember that Matthew’s approach and way of writing was to retrieve and interpret, or re-interpret, Old Testament passages and apply them to Jesus in an effort to prove that Jesus was, indeed, the long-prophesied, long-awaited One of the Jewish people. And so, Matthew quotes passage after passage in an effort to establish Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. He sometimes does this better than he does at other times.
Which brings us back to the star. From whence did Matthew find a scriptural basis for the star of Bethlehem? There is an obscure passage in the Old Testament book of Numbers that many students of the Bible have latched onto in order to find a prophetic basis for the star of Bethlehem that heralded Jesus’ birth. That short passage reads, “there shall come a Star out of Jacob” (Numbers 24:17 KJV). Was this a passage that Matthew had in mind when he sought to base his star story on ancient Hebrew prophecy?
But the most important point of the star of Bethlehem story does not involve the star itself, but what the star symbolized and was intended to convey by Matthew. The star is above all a symbol or sign pointing to something much greater than itself. If we fail to understand this, then we miss Matthew’s point altogether. Matthew’s purpose was to prove that Jesus was a king, the long-awaited King of the Jews. And he used the current belief that new or unusual signs in the sky were indications of the birth of royalty.
And so, in Matthew’s story, the royalty or kingship of Jesus is emphasized in two different ways: first, by the appearance of “his star in the east,” whatever form that “star” might have taken, that announced the birth of royalty. And second, the royalty or kingship of Jesus is emphasized by the kings, magi, or wise men who came to worship him—kings worshiping THE King, so to speak. For the writer of Matthew, these two facts should be proof enough that Jesus was the newborn King of the Jews.
But the star can serve as a symbol or metaphor in yet another way; a way which may resonate with some more so than the miracle of the star signifying the kingship of Jesus. The star can serve as a metaphor or symbol of the human quest. In following the star, the wise men or magi were on a quest; they were searching. Searching for the object of the star. Searching for newborn royalty to whom they could pay homage.
Some of us spend much of our lives on a quest. For some it is a quest after religious or spiritual truth. Such has been the way with me, anyway. From the moment I felt drawn toward ministry, I, like the magi, set forth on a quest to find religious and spiritual truth. My quest took me down many different roads, the reading of hundreds of books, many graduate courses, and untold conversations.
For some the star may represent the quest after inner peace. To such, to find the truth about God, God’s requirements, the nature of the afterlife, brings a sense of calm or peace to the soul. At one time early in my spiritual journey, I found myself there as well.
For others, the star may represent the quest toward self-discovery. I think the last decade or so has found me more in this questing mode. My star quest has not been so much about religious truth or inner peace these past few years as it has been more about greater enlightened self-discovery, who I am, and what I hold to be of absolute meaning and importance in life.
The older I get, the more I sort of see life to be like a sieve that one might use at one of those roadside attractions where you look for gold or semi-precious stones; the process of sorting through everything that comes your way and eliminating all the dross, that which holds little or no meaning or value, in order to discover those few precious items that are of value. Life as such is a quest, and the older we get, the more selective we get in the things we feel are of value. The more selective we become in the stars we seek to follow.
So the real question this morning is not do you believe that there actually was a literal star of Bethlehem that led Wise Men or magi to the Baby Jesus. But rather, what does that star symbolize to you in regards to who Jesus was, and more importantly perhaps, what does that star say to you about your own personal quests in life? Because when all is said and done, each of us must decide what we believe about Jesus and how that belief changes our life, if at all. And each of us must engage in our own personal quests that will lead us to the spiritual or religious truth we are seeking, those things that we hold to be of highest value, as well as to more enlightened self-discovery. May it be so. Amen.
1David A. Weintraub, “Amazingly, astronomy can explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem,” Washington Post, December 26, 2014.