January 6, 2019, Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew 2:1-12
In 2014 Michael Molnar, a former astronomer at Rutgers University, thought he had figured out the celestial phenomenon that attracted the magi to the birth of Jesus. That October he presented his research for debate to a group of scientists, theologians, and historians at a colloquium on the Star of Bethlehem at the Netherlands’ University of Groningen, a gathering marking four hundred years since Johannes Kepler, pioneer of modern astronomy, first analyzed the Bethlehem Star in 1614.
An avid coin collector as well as an astronomer, it was actually a coin in Molnar’s collection – one from first century Antioch of a ram looking at a star – that led him to his theory that was favorably received at the conference. Through research he had discovered that Aries the Ram was the zodiac symbol for Judea and then combing ancient astrological documents he found that astrologists associated the planet Jupiter with royalty so if the moon passed in front of Jupiter while in Aries the Ram it would have royal significance. Finding two dates in 6 BC when this happened he then discovered upon reading today’s biblical text from Matthew’s gospel that the Greek word for “in the East” was the astrological term for a planet becoming a morning star. April 17, 6 BC he discovered was the exact date when Jupiter was “in the East” or a morning star, thus proof, he said, of the Star of Bethlehem.
A year later in September 2015 New Testament professor, Colin Nicholl, released his book, The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem. In it he lays out his case, using the latest astronomical research at the time and looking again at the biblical text from Matthew, that the star of Bethlehem as actually a great comet.
Kepler, Molnar, and Nicholl are just a few of those through the years who have tried to provide conclusive evidence of the Star of Bethlehem and thus prove the story of the birth of Jesus is true beyond a shadow of a doubt. Our rational human selves tend to want proof in order to believe what we are told. This has not changed from Kepler’s time four hundred plus years ago to now. Yet, what has changed is that belief in the Christmas story is declining.
A 2017 poll from the Pew Research Center found that among the religiously unaffiliated and among Christians, belief in the Christmas story declined from 2014 to 2017. On four aspects of the Christmas story – Jesus was born to a virgin, baby Jesus was laid in a manger, wisemen guided by a star brought Jesus gifts, and an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherd – belief dropped. Over just that three year period on all four questions together, belief declined by ten percent in the religiously unaffiliated and by five percent among Christians.
With the trends of the number of religiously unaffiliated or “Nones” growing in the United States and the number of Christians who regularly attend worship declining as well, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to most of us. Especially, as many who are leaving organized religion altogether identify an unwillingness to check their brains at the door and not question the beliefs being taught as part of why they are walking away from organized religion. But do we have to believe every aspect of the Christmas story or every other part of the Bible as incontrovertible truth in order to be a Christian? Or, when we get bogged down in proving every bit of the story as fact, do we miss that there is a greater truth to be found about God through the story?
In her book, A Stone for a Pillow, author Madeleine L’Engle argues it is the latter when she writes, “That limited literalism which demands that the Bible’s poetry and story and drama and parable be taken as factual history is one of Satan’s cleverest devices. If we allow ourselves to be limited to the known and the explainable, we have thereby closed ourselves off from God and mystery and revelation.” God and mystery and revelation are just what we encounter in our gospel reading today as we hear the story of the wise men following the star to find Jesus.
Over the centuries we have tried to nail down the specifics of the star’s appearance using science to a certain celestial manifestation. We have tried to make a real life connection to every other little detail of the story as well. Number of wise men – three – though a number isn’t specifically mentioned in the story we deduce it from the number of gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – listed in the story. Names of the magi – Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar – received from legend though all we read about them in the story is that they were wise men from the East.
These are specific details that make the story seem more real to us, but are these details important in understanding God’s truth found in the story? Maybe instead what is important is the wise men are included at all. Or perhaps that they are the ones that see the star at its rising and head out to find Jesus, the Messiah, and who then share the news of his birth.
The original audience for Matthew’s gospel would have been a Jewish one, so to make the story unquestionable to them it would have made more sense to have those seeking and finding the Messiah for the Jewish people to be one of them. However, instead we find outsiders. Wise men or magi, foreign astrologers and unbelievers from the East. They come in search not of the fulfillment of a story they read and believe in the Hebrew Scriptures, but they come because of signs they have seen in the sky. They are the first to worship and pay homage to Jesus, not the religious insiders who you’d think would be able to spot the Messiah from miles away. The insiders miss it, in fact, they question and fear and plot against this Messiah because of what it might mean for them and their own power if this is true.
And what about Bethelehem? It was a back woods town. Nothing like Jerusalem. Jerusalem, the center of political, religious, and military power. Where you’d think you’d go to find the newborn king of the Jews. So, it is no surprise that the magi went there first. But there the scribes tell Herod and Herod tells the magi that it isn’t where the Messiah will be born. An obscure text from the minor prophet, Micah, tells them where to look instead – Bethlehem. “A rural place, dusty, unnoticed, and unpretentious,” writes Walter Brueggemann. And yet it is here, off the beaten path, a place that flies under most people’s radar, that the Messiah appears.
The story of the magi, the star, and the baby Jesus – the story we celebrate on this Feast of the Epiphany, the feast day of the Church of the Epiphany – reveals a greater truth about God than facts or figures. Because it reveals that God doesn’t just appear to us through formal and pre-screened religious channels. Through the insider only track. Instead, God appears through the outsider. God appears through strangers from the East who dare to follow strange signs in the sky and who risk taking directions from powerful strangers with questionable motives, all in a quest to find the truth offered in an unexpected Messiah. And it is there as they come to the end of their journey that they find God made known in mystery and revelation and so do we.
In these times when we struggle to discern what the real facts are and where we are told that truth is no longer truth, the mystery of the Epiphany points us to a truth greater than we will ever find in facts. It points us to a God revealed or made known in unprecedented ways and through unconventional people. It invites us to open our eyes and our minds to the unexpected and the unpredictable mystery of God in our midst. And it reveals a God not bound by our rules, expectations, definitions, or practices. Instead, it reveals a God set free to use whatever means necessary to reveal to any and all – insiders and outsiders, Jew or Gentile, Christian or None – the love and grace brought and revealed in Jesus Christ that we can never fully understand the mystery of, but that we can trust is God’s eternal truth and promise for all the world. Amen.