The Star of Bethlehem
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
During this Advent season we’ve been following the prophecy of Isaiah, as he described signs foretelling the dawning of God’s New Creation in Jesus Christ. For example, he said,
“The wolf will live with the lamb,
and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
The calf, the young lion, and the fattened calf together;
and a little child will lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
“Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped.
Then the lame man will leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute will sing…” (Isaiah 35:5-6)
“Behold, the virgin will conceive, and bear a son,
and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)
This morning I’d like for us to listen to Matthew, as we consider yet a fourth sign – the Star of Bethlehem.
To be fair, I should tell you that the Star of Bethlehem has been the subject of endless debate over the years. Various explanations have been put forth. Some think it could have been a nova; others, a supernova; still others, a comet, an occultation, a conjunction and, yes, there are those who would say we should take the Star of Bethlehem metaphorically, not scientifically.
This year I ordered a documentary called, “The Bethlehem Star,” based on the work of Johannes Kepler. Unfortunately, I didn’t get my order off in time to share it with you this morning. Hopefully, we’ll find time to watch it in the early weeks of Epiphany.
Kepler was a 16th Century mathematician and astronomer, who, among other things, published the First, Second and Third Laws of Planetary Motion used by NASA and other space agencies to this day.
Kepler’s findings allow us to map the night sky precisely as far into the future or back to the past as we care to go. Combining his laws of planetary motion to our best guess of the year in which Jesus was born, we can see for ourselves what the stars and planets were doing back then.
Some people have made a convincing case that a natural phenomenon in the heavens did occur in a way that conforms to the biblical witness and that it was understood to herald the birth of the Messiah.
It’s all quite complicated, as you might expect, but, in the simplest possible terms, astronomers tell us that there were actually seven conjunctions between the planet, Jupiter, and the star, Regulus, in the third and second centuries, B.C.
Jupiter is known as the king planet because of its size, and Regulus is known as the king star, which is where it gets its name, which means regal. Astronomer Roger Sinnott says that, “the fusion of two planets (such as these) would have been a rare and awe-inspiring event.”
As far as the star’s seeming to stand still and come to rest over Bethlehem, that’s a phenomenon called retrograde motion. It occurs when the observer himself is in motion. When you think about it, that’s the only way we can observe the stars and planets – in motion – since we’re standing on the earth, and the earth itself is a moving platform.
To the magi the message was clear: the heavens were declaring the birth of a king. When they saw the sign, they mounted their camels and followed it first to Jerusalem, then on to Bethlehem, where it stopped. They offered their gifts of love and devotion to the Christ child, then returned to their own country by another way, so as to avoid the dreaded Herod the Great.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus’ birth was announced in this way. For one thing, it fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament, where Balaam told King Balak:
“I see him, but not now. I see him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob.
A scepter will rise out of Israel,
and shall strike through the corners of Moab,
and break down all the sons of Sheth.” (Numbers 24:17)
The Star of Bethlehem was but one of many ways God has spoken through the forces of nature.
• The rainbow, for example, was a sign of God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by flood. (Genesis 9:9-17)
• Throughout the wilderness journey, God led the people of Israel with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exodus 13:21)
• In a war against the Amorites, God caused the sun to stand still and the moon to stop, in order to give Joshua time to win the battle. Scripture says, “The sun stayed in the midst of the sky, and didn’t hurry to go down about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:12-13)
• Job asked his friends, “…how can man be just with God?…He commands the sun, and it doesn’t rise, and seals up the stars. He alone stretches out the heavens, and treads on the waves of the sea. He makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the rooms of the south. He does great things past finding out; yes, marvelous things without number.” (Job 9:1-10)
• Little wonder, then, that the Psalmist sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork… Their voice has gone out through all the earth,
their words to the end of the world.” (Psalms 19:1-4)
As early as the 3rd Century, one of the early church fathers, Origen, wrote of the Bethlehem Star,
“If, then, at the commencement of new dynasties, or on the occasion of other important events, there arises a comet so called, or any similar celestial body, why should it be matter of wonder that at the birth of Him who was to introduce a new doctrine to the human race, and to make known His teaching not only to Jews, but also to Greeks, and to many of the barbarous nations besides, a star should have arisen?”
So, what does the Star of Bethlehem mean for us today? First, it confirms the past. Something happened on that cold, winter night so long ago, and that something was that the God of all creation came to earth as one of us.
No longer need we speculate about the nature of God, for God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ. God stepped down from his lofty throne to walk among us and share our hurts and our hopes. He became one of us in order that we might become more like him, allowing our sinful human nature to be transformed into the image of God in which we were first created. Martin Luther writes,
“This is the Christ, God’s son most high,
Who hears your sad and bitter cry;
He will himself your Savior be,
And from all sin will set you free.”
The Star of Bethlehem confirms the past. It also affirms the present. Jesus didn’t just come to earth, live a few years and die. He came to earth to proclaim the reign of God and invite all who would to be part of it; then he gave his life as a final act of self-sacrifice to break the power of sin and death forever. To this day he lives in the hearts and minds of all who believe in him and seek to follow in his footsteps. Charles Wesley writes,
“Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail, the sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that men no more may die.
Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the new-born king!'”
The Star of Bethlehem confirms the past; it affirms the present; and it re-confirms the future. God didn’t just set the creation spinning in space and leave it to chart its own course. God has a plan, and God will not be satisfied until his will is accomplished and every particle of creation is reconciled to himself and each other and united in perfect peace and harmony.
Of this we can be sure: Just as Christ has come in the child of Bethlehem; and just as Christ comes to us in the serendipities of everyday life; so Christ will come again in final victory to rule over all creation, to the glory of God.
Twice now I’ve gotten an email with an attachment containing a YouTube performance of a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in some public place. Have you seen this? The first was at a Macy’s department store; the other was in a shopping mall food court. Both were similar in that, up until the first note sounded, the members of the choir were scattered among the shoppers, standing or sitting incognito.
The camera starts off showing everyone going about his business, complete unaware of what’s about to happen. Then, without warning, someone starts singing, then another, then another. Before the shoppers figure out what’s happening, there’s a whole choir singing all over the place at the top of their lungs.
The audience is taken completely by surprise. At first, there are expressions of astonishment. People start taking pictures with their cell phones. As the shock wears off, you see individuals who know the music start mouthing the words. By the time the music reaches its climax, you see tears and heart-felt expressions of wonder and praise, as the words of Handel’s Messiah proclaim the Good News of the Gospel:
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ,
And He shall reign for ever and ever.”
Well, it’s the Sunday after Christmas, and already the excitement has begun to simmer. So, let me encourage you to do this: Before you take down the tree and start packing up the ornaments and other miscellaneous odds and ends, take a moment to reflect on the Star of Bethlehem.
It’s an important symbol. It confirms the past, affirms the present, and reconfirms the future. Let it shine in your heart throughout the coming year, and let it remind you that, just as God has given us signs of Christ’s coming in the past, so will God give us signs of Christ’s presence today and of Christ’s final coming in the future, at a moment you least expect him to appear.
We all know John Hopkins. He’s one of our elders. But there’s another John Hopkins – John H. Hopkins, Jr. (no relationship, as far as I know) – who lived in the 19th Century, and it’s this John Hopkins who saw the Star of Bethlehem in his heart and was inspired to pen these words so dear to us today:
“Star of wonder, star of light,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.”
Friends, look to the Star of Bethlehem and know that Jesus has come in the fullness of God’s peace, joy and love, that you might have the promise of eternal life, both now and forever; then let the Star of Bethlehem shine in you, to the glory of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.