Epiphany Sunday (Series A,B,C)
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.
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
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
magi were the magicians who understood the stars.
They were the resident scientists of the sky, the resident
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
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
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
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
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?”