The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 1/4/09
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"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."

Star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light. (1)

The annual observance of the birth of our Savior is almost over - Epiphany, recalling the visit of the Wise Men is commemorated this week, January 6, and ends the liturgical celebration, following the "Twelve Days of Christmas." No gifts of turtle doves, French hens or partridges in pear trees; rather the more traditional gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Lots of legends have grown up around this story of the Three Kings, one of which is that they were "three kings." The gospel account does not say there were three of them...or five or ten or thirty. The idea of THREE KINGS came when the three gifts were given - one each. (Some wag has suggested that there were actually FOUR kings, but the fourth one's gift was a fruitcake, so he was not allowed in.) Really? We have absolutely no idea.

Speaking of kings, the scripture calls them "Magi" which translators have rendered "wise men" or "astrologers." The warm and fuzzy interpretation of the story offers these visitors as paradigms of faith in search of the divine. But the truth is, in the days of Jesus, these folks were thought of as glorified fortune-tellers. Our English words "magic" and "magician" come from this word "magi." They were not so much respectable "wise men" or "kings" but horoscope followers, a practice condemned by Jewish tradition. Some have compared them to folks on the Psychic Friends Network or other "occupations" that foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards, etc. One writer describes them this way: "The Magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious hocus-pocus - dabblers in chicken gizzards, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future." (2)

We run into the word again in Acts 13 when Barnabas and Paul come to Paphos and there meet Elymas, a Jewish Magus (the singular of Magi). This is how Paul describes him: "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?" (3)

You are beginning to get the idea. The Magi of our story were not "wise men." They were not models of religious piety. They were pseudo-scientists, astrologers, fortune-tellers, horoscope fanatics, heretics even. The Magi should not be there. But they are.

And what about that star? Astronomers, theologians and historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing. There are two general theories: those who believe the star was made especially for that first Christmas: Poof! A Star! Others have been convinced that there was a very special juxtaposition of heavenly bodies to produce a spectacular unique brilliance, never seen before or since. In 1604 German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C. Possible.

A more recent conjecture has come from a Notre Dame astrophysicist, Dr. Grant Mathews. (4) The professor says that he had hoped the answer would be something spectacular like a supernova. But two years of research led him to a more ordinary conclusion - the heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon. Mathews made use of the databases of NASA; he says, "In principle, we can see any star that was ever made from the beginning of time if we knew where to look. So the question is, could we find a star that could be a good candidate for what showed up then?"

He began by posing three questions he would ask when trying to find the answer to any astronomical event: When did it occur? What were its characteristics? Did anyone else see it? After beaucoodles of calculations Dr. Mathews concluded that the phenomenon was not a supernova or a comet because the ancient astrologers and fortune-tellers would have thought of something such as that as a bad omen, a sign of disaster, not a portent of good things to come. For that reason, he believes the Christmas star is probably an alignment of planets, the most likely of which would have occurred on April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations. He makes that conclusion because he believes the Magi were Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign that a powerful leader was born. "In fact it would have even meant that (the leader was) destined to die at an appointed time." Hmm.

So, is that the answer? We have no idea. As Professor Mathews says, "There are plenty of strong opinions out there. I think this is as good as you can do for now."

This brief story has been described as the entire gospel crammed into a few short paragraphs. I prefer to call it simply the gospel by starlight. It begins with God getting the attention of people who would not be likely candidates to become models of faith. God uses something within their own unique frame of reference - planetary alignment - to make them take notice. They are led across a vast geographical expanse by an ancient forerunner of GPS navigation technology. They learn quickly that generally accepted societal pecking orders (kings on top, everyone else in a descending scale underneath) are no longer operative. They meet the divine in the form of a young child - Epiphany (which is not only the name of a date on the liturgical calendar; it means literally an appearance of God) - and they bring something of themselves in worship - gold, frankincense and myrrh. And that makes a difference - it brings changes; they went home "by another road." The gospel by starlight.

How does that play out today? Does God still beckon to people, even some who might be thought of as surprising? Does God still use the events and activities of people's lives to attract attention? Does God still guide? Are divine priorities as different from society's today as they were back then? Do we still meet God in Jesus? Are we still called to worship? Are we still changed? The gospel by starlight.

Think about it as you come to the Table.


1. John Henry Hopkins, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," 1857

2. Brian Stoffregen, "Gospel Notes for this Sunday," via Ecunet, #14225, 12/30/07

3. Acts 13:10

4. Tom Coyne, "Notre Dame astrophysicist has theories on star of Bethlehem," Associated Press, 12/22/2007

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