"All Stars Lead to Bethlehem"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 1/7/2018
Matthew 2:1-12
“All Stars Lead to Bethlehem”
January 7, 2018
            Matthew is the only gospel that talks about wise men visiting the baby Jesus, and he doesn’t say much about them, including how many there were.  Over the centuries, of course, the Eastern Orthodox churches decided that there were twelve of them and the Western church decided that there were three.  The three were named Melchior, Balthasar, and Casper.  It seems that after returning to their own land in the East, and even after death, they could not stop traveling because their relics had made their way to Constantinople by the fifth century and then to Cologne, Germany during the Crusades.  Somewhere along the way they became not only wise, but also royal.
            Matthew just calls them “magi”.  Those were part priest/part astrologer leaders of an ancient people who lived in what is now Iran.  They may or may not have been Zoroastrians, a Persian religion that flourished at that time.  They were known for interpreting dreams and for casting horoscopes; in fact, from them we get the word “magic”.  When they spotted a new star and identified its meaning, they were just doing their jobs.  That may be why Matthew describes their arrival in Jerusalem as being, for them, almost matter-of-fact.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’” [Matthew 2:1-2]
Of course, what they do find once they get to Bethlehem is not the one they expected, but they are certain enough of their own skill and the evidence before them that when they arrive at the right place,
“…they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” [Matthew 2:10-11]
            These are strange people to be seeking and finding the Messiah.  They don’t fit any of the usual categories.  In Luke, the baby is recognized immediately by two people.  One is Simeon, who is an old, pious priest.  The other is Anna, an old, pious woman who spends her time praying in the temple.  Those figures make sense.  But the magi aren’t even Jewish.  They don’t have any idea who they’re looking for.  They’re politically naïve enough to go to Herod, of all people, to ask where to find the king of the Jews, which implies it is not him and eventually leads to his massacre of all the male children in that region younger than two.
            Yet that all just goes to emphasize what can happen when people follow whatever leading the Lord sends them that brings them near to him.  That is a constant across the ages.
            Francis Collins is a doctor who led the Human Genome Project that the National Institute of Health describes as “the international, collaborative research program whose goal was the complete mapping and understanding of all the genes of human beings.”[1]  Dr. Collins describes himself as “a believer in a God who is unlimited by time and space, and who takes a personal interest in human beings.”[2]  That puts him right in the thick of things between people who believe only in science and deny God’s existence and people who have faith in God but who deny science when it doesn’t fit their view of the Bible.  So, in his book The Language of God he talks about his own experience and his own faith and how his work, first as a doctor and later as a research geneticist, brought him to faith in God and trust in Jesus.
            It was, for him, a long and round-about path and I won’t try to summarize it here.  I would just repeat his own summary:
“The need to find my own harmony of the worldviews ultimately came as the study of genomes – our own and that of many other organisms on the planet – began to take off, providing an incredibly rich and detailed view of how descent by modification from a common ancestor has occurred.  Rather than finding this unsettling, I found this elegant evidence of the relatedness of all living things an occasion of awe, and came to see this as the master plan of the same Almighty who caused the universe to come into being and set its physical parameters just precisely right to allow the creation of stars, planets, heavy elements, and life itself.”[3]
            God finds all sorts of ways to guide people to himself.  Right now I’m reading a book called The Year of Living Biblically in which A.J. Jacobs, a writer for Esquire decides that he’s going to try to obey all the rules in the Bible for a year, and then turn it into a book.  Like Dr. Collins, he is starting from the point of being totally secular, although he does admit that he has a young son and is wondering how to raise him right and that this has something at least tangentially to do with his project.  Still, his main point is to explore and describe the religious landscape to people who will find it amusing when he gets into an argument with an adulterer when he asks his permission to stone him.  Like the magi, like Francis Collins, he is just doing his job.  I haven’t finished the book yet, so I cannot say how the search changes him, but even halfway through he is already describing how the practice of prayer makes him more aware of the needs of others and more thankful for things that he hadn’t generally noticed before.
            Whatever light shines on us, God can use it to point us toward himself.    
            I wonder if there isn’t somewhere in this world a glassblower who starts thinking about how, if she can pull together the broken shards of an old Coke bottle and turn them into a lampshade or a snow globe, there must be someone who can take a shattered life and turn it into beauty.
            I wonder if there isn’t a toll collector who doesn’t absent-mindedly think about what it means for there to be a bridge across a wide river that nobody could cross on their own, but that bridge takes thousands and thousands every day safely from here to there, from this shore to the other.
            I wonder if there isn’t somebody nodding off right now, troubled and worn-out, too tired to hold an eyelid open from being caught up in ways of life that are not those of God, who may not in their dreams, hear him say, as he said to the wise men “The road you’ve taken isn’t safe; take another instead,” and waking, return home safely by another route.

[1] https://www.genome.gov/12011238/an-overview-of-the-human-genome-project/
[2] Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 7.
[3] Ibid., 198-199.
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