A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, December 25, 2016
Matthew 2:1-12 ESV
There has been much speculation and much ink spilled over the Christmas Star, the Wise Men, the nature of the Christmas angels, and more over the centuries. And each of these things does make for interesting topics to ponder.
For instance, biblical scholars, astronomers, and many others of different walks of life have gone to great lengths to try to precisely identify what constituted that Christmas star that is said to have guided the Wise Men or Magi to the Baby Jesus. It has been conjectured to have been a super nova, a comet, or an alignment of the planets that constituted this unique light in the sky that caused the Wise Men to set forth on their journey and led them to the Christ Child.
And speaking of the Wise Men or Magi, who were they anyway? What was their real profession? And where did they come from? And how many Wise Men were there? And what were their names? All of these questions and more have been researched, explored, and debated for 2,000 years.
And what about those Christmas angels? What were they like? What did they really look like? How many of them appeared to the shepherds? Do such beings actually exist and make appearances in our world?
And then there are the shepherds. Why would an angel appear to shepherds, of all people on earth? What role do they really play in the Christmas stories?
And finally, there is the manger. Was it a side room or lower room of an inn? Was it a wooden stable down the street? Or as tradition says, was it a grotto or a cave?
As I have indicated, many have gone to great lengths over the centuries in efforts to accurately identify and prove as fact the nature of that Christmas star, the historical truth and identity of the Wise Men, the certainty of the angels appearing to the shepherds, and more. And for so many Christians, the integrity of the Christmas stories rests upon the actual, historic accuracy of these Christmas icons. In other words, for the Christmas stories to be true, the star, wise men, angels, and so on must be proved and accepted as fact.
And such is where I was some 40 years ago. If you could have seen me studying the Christmas stories 40 years ago, you would have witnessed me pouring over biblical commentaries, Bible handbooks, Bible dictionaries and such trying to determine what that Christmas star really was, and where the Wise Men came from and what their nationalities were, what those angels were really like, and so on. But is setting out to prove as fact and historically accurate all of those Christmas icons the only way to find meaning in the Christmas stories?
Another – and I have decided better – way to approach the Christmas stories and those Christmas icons is to try to see the truth behind the stories and symbols. Was Matthew more interested in us trying to determine the nature of that Christmas star, or the truth behind the star that he was trying to share with the world? Was it important to Matthew that we really know where the Wise Men came from, what their nationalities and names were? Or was he more concerned that we understand what the Wise Men stood for? And was Luke’s aim to cause the Jesus followers to speculate and debate the nature of those Christmas angels and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (as was debated at one time in church history), or to see behind the angels to the truth about this Child as he saw it?
We have said it here at the United Church more than once – the power and beauty behind a good story, behind any story, lie not in the historical accuracy or the unmitigated facts of the story, but in the truth behind the story or the truth behind the symbols or metaphors that story contains. And such is certainly the nature of the Christmas stories. One doesn’t have to believe in every historical detail or fact in the Christmas stories to love and appreciate them and take truth from them.
Take the star, for instance. To me, the truth behind the Christmas star – regardless of what that star may or may not have been – that Matthew was trying to get across is the birth of Jesus was a cosmic event. It was an event that was bound up in the order of the universe. For Matthew, the birth of Jesus was unlike any other that had come before or would come afterwards. For the ancients, the rising of a new light in the sky indicated the birth of a new king. Matthew’s point was that Jesus was a new king, the new King of the Jews, but of cosmic proportions.
The Wise Men symbolized the fact that though Jesus was the new King of the Jews, he was much, much more. He was also to be King of the Gentiles who also recognized his royalty and traveled from afar bringing gifts suited to royalty after the manner of those who had traveled to King Solomon of old bringing him gifts. Jesus was to be King over the whole world.
The angels? Well, they signify that the birth of Jesus was of heavenly origins and heavenly blessed. For Luke, Jesus’ birth was not just an ordinary birth. It was other worldly.
What was the significance of the shepherds? As I have pointed out previously, the shepherds were of the lowliest of society of that day. In Luke’s frame of reference, Jesus came for all the lowliest of the world – the outcasts, oppressed, prostitutes, tax collectors, crippled, and others who were shunned and looked down upon in Jesus’ day. And the shepherds, who were also often looked down upon, embody the good news of Luke’s Christmas story, revealing that the love of God revealed in the birth of Jesus is for everyone – no one excluded.
And what about the fact that Jesus was born in a manger, whatever the nature of that manger might really have been? Jesus was born in the lowliest, most humble of circumstances, making him accessible to the most common people of the earth. But could Luke also have been foreshadowing by pointing out just as there was “no room in the inn” for the Baby Jesus, there would be no room for him in the world?
We could go on. But the point is, if we get too caught up in trying to prove the facts or explain the physical aspects of the Christmas stories, we may miss out on the powerful spiritual and theological truths behind the stories. And it is the spiritual and theological truths that really hold meaning for our lives and that continue to draw us back to those stories time and again.
So, when we consider all those elements of the Christmas stories that all of us have come to love – the star, Wise Men, angels, shepherds, and the like – the question to ask is not, “Are these things historically true, 100% factual in every detail?” Who can really know that, as no one was there to record the events when they actually happened?
Rather, the question to ask is, “What do these things mean?” What meaning, what hope, what good news, what promise is behind the physical images or icons? For Matthew, these Christmas icons symbolize the cosmic and other-worldly nature of Jesus, one unlike any other. For Luke, these Christmas icons are the good news that Jesus’ birth was blessed by heaven, and Jesus was born for everybody; none of the earth’s lowliest are excluded from the love and grace of God revealed in the birth of Jesus.
We thank God for these wonderful, beautiful stories and Christmas images that have become such a cherished part of our faith – the manger, shepherds, angels, Wise Men, and star. Our lives are so much the richer for them. But we thank God even more for the powerful spiritual and theological truths behind the stories and images. Therein really lies the good news for our lives. Amen.