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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
Shooting Stars

Matthew 2:1-11     Epiphany Sunday (Series A,B,C)

Shooting stars, comets, and the movement of planets in the sky have always fascinated people.  We love a night when the sky is clear, the night is dark, and away from the glare of the lights of the city, we can witness the evening shower of shooting stars in a moonless night.  For centuries people have been fascinated about what happens above us in the heavens. 

For example, every seventy-six years, Haley’s comet comes speeding by the earth.  In 1910, it came within 14 million miles of the earth and it was unusually bright in the sky that year.  Normally, Haley’s comet is 40 miles from earth, but in 1910, it was only 14 million miles away from us, lighting up the sky each night with brilliant clarity.  And people were afraid.  Substantiated rumor said that the comet gave off comet gas, a poisonous comet gas, and therefore financial hucksters were selling comet pills to protect the populations below from comet gases that would penetrate our atmosphere.  Yes, really, they were selling comet pills to protect people from comet gas in 1910. 

Seventy-six years later, it was different, but money still was to be made.  In 1986, the best place on earth to witness Haley’s comet was in Australia and New Zealand, and it became commercial “show time.”  Every motel room sold out “down under.”  So many rooms were in demand that the government appealed to citizens to rent out their homes to tourists to come and see the magnificent site of Haley’s comet (and of course, spend their money in Australia.).  The tourist boats were filled, the luxury liners, each with their resident astronomer.  You could travel with none other than Carl Sagan, the world’s foremost astronomer, for a mere $8,000, and listen to brilliant lectures about the comet’s tail some 40 million miles away.  Yes, people past and present have been fascinated about comets and shooting stars and signs in the heavens.

But peoples past and present have not only been fascinated by comets and shooting stars, they have been afraid of what they saw in the heavens, afraid of what the heavens were saying.  When people saw unusual phenomenon in the sky, they asked the questions e.g. what does this mean?  What does this mean for us?  For our nation?  For our king?  What does this mean?  For example, historians tell us that a comet foretold the death of Caesar Augustus.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that a comet foretold the death of Emperor Vespasian. .....  The story I like best is the one from 1682, when a comet came over Boston, Massachusetts, when Cotton Mather was a famous, puritan, hell and damnation, preacher in the town.  He warned the people that the comet was an omen, a calling from God for the immoral town to repent and get right with God while they still had chance. It was effective and the town repented and shaped up for a couple of years. And more recently, in 1974, when the comet, Kahoutek, flashed by the earth, a religious group by the name of the Children of God fled to Hawaii to await the end of the earth on January 21st of that year.  Some of them are probably still there, waiting for the glorious end to come, enjoying the climate and warm beaches.  The point is, peoples past and present have always been fascinated and afraid of comets and what they may mean to their lives.

It is with these stories that we approach the Gospel text for today about the guiding star from the East and the three magi or Wisemen.  It is the story of the three Wisemen who saw strange happenings in the sky. 

As you perhaps know, the word “magi” is related to the word “magic” and “magician.”  The magi were the magicians who understood the stars.  They were the resident scientists of the sky, the resident astrologers.  Think about it.  People back then had as brilliant minds as we have today; and the night sky was an obvious thing for their brilliant minds to study, there in the desert, night after night and decade after decade.  These people memorized the sky; they were “sky scientists,” and their brains knew every nuance and change that occurred above them. Astrology was the respected science of the stars.

And their brilliant minds saw something occurring in the year 7 BC.  It is a scientific fact that in 7 BC, there was an interplay between the two planets, Jupiter and Saturn.  The two planets interwove in and out with each other.  It happens every 800 years, e.g. about 800 AD, 1600 AD, and also in 7BC.  It is a scientific fact.  Just go to the planetariums in Chicago or in Vancouver, British Columbia, and you can visit the Christmas program at those planetariums and they will replicate the sky above Palestine in 7 BC, and there you can witness the interplay in the night sky between Jupiter and Saturn.  And the ancient minds, which had memorized the sky, saw what was happening, a strange and unusual phenomenon.

And it is a historical fact, not a scientist fact, but a historical fact that the planets had meanings e.g. Jupiter, the largest planet, represented the “king of the heavens” and Jupiter, was thought to be the “protector of Israel.”  Different stars and constellations had different meanings to people, and Jupiter was associated with “king” and what we know as the planet Saturn was thought to be the star protector of Israel.  And so when these two were interconnected, the sky scientists of that era were asking:  what does this mean?  A king to be...the protector of Israel?  What do these two interweaving stars mean?  Of course, they asked such questions. 

For example, the well known Roman historian, Suetonious, who wrote and described the times of I Claudius (did you watch the PBS series, I Claudius;  it was based on the writings of the historian, Suetonious.)  Suetonious wrote at this time:  “There is spread over all the East (e.g. Persia) the well established belief that men coming from Judea were fated to rule the world.”

So it is within this realistic historic context of the scientist fact of the interplay between Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 BC, of the historic fact that people thought that Jupiter represented “king” and Saturn represented “protector of Israel,” and the historic fact that the Roman historian Suetonious said that the rumor was common that the ruler of the world was to come from Judea, it is within this mixture of facts that we hear the story of the three Wisemen, the three astrologers from Persia, coming to Judea, coming to the capital city of Jerusalem, visiting the king there, King Herod, saying:  we have seen this star in the East and have followed it here.  Is there anything in your sacred writings, which would tell us specifically where this king is to be born?  For me, there is plausibility to the whole scene.

And what was King Herod’s reaction?  What we would expect, knowing what we know about King Herod.  Herod was violent madman.  He killed three of his sons, his wife, and his mother-in-law.  You didn’t want to cross this empowered madman, and so when he heard of a possible new king being born, it is consistent with his personality to order all the male children under two years old to be killed.  (Sure, this story may have simply been a creation of the early church to make the birth of Jesus parallel to the birth of Moses, but there are some interesting historical plausibility’s here as well.)

So what does all this mean, this story about the three Wisemen, the star, and the birth of the king?  “What does this all mean?” the ancient minds would ask as they looked at the heavens, and we ask the same question today. 

But before we get into “the meat” of the sermon, I would like to make a two side comments.  First, we don’t know if there were three Wisemen.  In our tradition, we say that there were three Wisemen who each gave one gift, gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And it conforms to our Christmas carol, “We three kings of Orient are.”  But in other religious traditions, there are 6, 8, and 12 magi.  The Bible doesn’t give us a precise number, 3, 6, 8, or 12. 

And secondly, this story does not endorse astrology and the use of horoscopes.  All other stories in the Bible about astrology associate it with something pagan.  We Christians don’t read our horoscopes to see what is going to happen to our lives this day, this week or this month.  Stars and horoscopes don’t affect our destiny; such things are not taken seriously by believers who follow the star of Jesus Christ and find their enlightenment in him, our guiding star. 

But what does this all mean?  The star?  The magi?  The story?  The early churched asked those questions?  The first Christians asked, what did that star mean? For me?  For us?   And the book of Isaiah from the Old Testament helped them find their answers.

The book of Isaiah said that all nations and all kings and all peoples and all races would come to worship the Christ, that the star shines over all races and over all kingdoms and over all peoples, that the star shines over ALL people. 

In our text for today, we heard that Christ is for all nations, and the word “nations” in the Greek language is “ethnos” from which we get the word, “ethnic,”  ethnos, ethnic.  The Bethlehem star shines over all ethnic groups. ...  And the three Wisemen, what were their names?  Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar?  And what were the colors of their skin?  Black and white and yellow.  One was black, one was white and one was yellow skinned.  In other words, Christ is for all races. 

And today that same star shines over Moscow and Peking and Bangkok and Paris and London, and New York and Nairobi.  It shines over capitalists and communists and socialists.  It shines over rich people and poor people and everyone in between.  The love of God revealed in that star is for all people and God’s love is not confined to one little group.  We the church of the totally loving Christ must not exclude anyone because of race, nationality, economic class, social strata, political beliefs or economic systems. 

But down deep inside, I suspect that sometimes we feel that God’s light shines a little bit brighter over.... Norway.   Over Norway, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and those northern European countries with their Lutheran heritages.  That God’s light shines more brightly over my house, my nation, my beliefs, my values, my interpretations of the Christian faith.

The star of Bethlehem said and says that God’s love is for all people of all races of all kingdoms. You and I do not have a corner on God’s love or a corner on God’s light at all. God loves everybody in the world just as much as God loves you and me.

What else does the star over Bethlehem mean for us today? Many people would like God to eliminate the dark, depressing times of life. But God never promised to take away our darkness. God never promised to eliminate our darkness on this side of the grave. What God did promise was to give us light, a light in the midst of darkness. God’s light will help us live in this dark world.

Yes, we all know that it’s a dark world. The prophet Isaiah said, “Darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness shall blanket the earth.” Life continues to be overwhelmingly dark, especially at some special moments of our history. So we light our little lighted candles of happiness and they are so fragile. They are so easily blown out. Today I am happy and tomorrow I have a stroke. Today I am smiling and tomorrow my child is hit by a car. Today I am rich and tomorrow I am poor when my plant closes and I am laid off. Today I am a success and tomorrow a failure.  Life’s little candles of happiness are so fragile and easily snuffed out.

But there is one light that is never snuffed out. There is one light that always shines in the darkness. There is one light that darkness cannot overcome, and that is Jesus Christ. So in the midst of your dark world and in the midst of my dark world, we keep our eyes focused on that eternal light of Jesus Christ.

Then we hear the words from Isaiah, “Rise. Shine. Get up. Your light has already come.” Get up. Get off your butts. Get up. Go. Rise. The light of God has already come to your life.

What else does this Christmas star mean?  The star wants me to follow, just as the Wise men did. Humankind has always followed stars to guide them. For centuries, sailors have navigated the oceans by means of watching the stars. There are millions of stars up there in the sky, but there is only one star that is primarily used by navigators. That is the North Star, the polar star, often referred to as “Polaris.” It is the only star that is right above the axis of the earth. … To find the North Star, you look at the Big Dipper. You take the alpha and the beta of that and follow the line of sight to the Little Dipper. From the Little Dipper, it points to the North Star that unlocks the heavens. If you are a navigator, you always know where the North Star is at night. If you lose track of the North Star, you get lost.

Christ is our North Star. There are millions of lights around us, but there is only one light that can navigate us through life itself, and that light is Jesus Christ. As we try to navigate our ways through life, there is only one star that can guide us, and that star is Jesus Christ. Never lose sight of that star.

The Wisemen came from Persia. The year was 7 B.C. That year, there was an unusual movement of planets in the sky. Jupiter, the large planet, was moving in conjunction with Saturn, the star that symbolized the protection of Israel.  These scientific astrologers asked, “What does this mean? What does this star mean for us?”  We ask the same question today, “What does this Star mean for us?” Amen.

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