The Presbyterian Pulpit

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

THE GOSPEL BY STARLIGHT

Delivered 1/6/19
Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (Ephesians 3:1-12)
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“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 today, January 6, and ends the liturgical celebration, capping off 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. (You may have heard me report previously [and I saw it yesterday again on Facebook] that 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 in 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.”

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?” (Acts 13:10).

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.

The lesson from Ephesians reminds that in the early days of the faith, when the church would have first heard about the Magi, there was a serious problem concerning the understanding of who "qualified" to be a part of God's family. The issue was blood - racism - Jew versus Gentile. A good Jew (and most of the early church were converted Jews) believed that the Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of Hell; that God loved only Israel of all the nations that had been made; it was not lawful for a Jew to render help to a Gentile woman in childbirth for that would be to help bring another Gentile into the world; if a Jew married a Gentile, the funeral of that Jew was carried out. Even to go into a Gentile house rendered a Jew unclean.

The writer also knew the absolute segregation between Jew and Gentile in worship; he knew "the dividing wall," as he called it, the barrier in the Temple court, beyond which no Gentile was permitted upon pain of death. But this good Jew, a man who called himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” was able to see beyond his tradition and write to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus, "In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." I guess that means even Magi.

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. (2) 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. Dr. 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."

Have you had occasion to see that CBS show this fall on Sunday nights called “God Friended Me?” I ordinarily shy away from shows that are overtly religion-oriented, as one with such a title probably would be, because most often, the religion that is being peddled is either ridiculously simplistic or simplistically wrong. But, for whatever reason, I watched this one, and it turned out to be terrific.

“God Friended Me” is a comedy/drama about a young outspoken atheist whose life is turned upside down when he receives a friend request on social media from “God” and unwittingly becomes an agent of change in the lives and destinies of others around him. Miles Finer is intelligent, hopeful and optimistic, but he does not believe in God, a decision he reached seventeen years before when his mother, who had just beaten cancer, was killed by a drunk driver. This put him at odds with his father who happens to be an Episcopal priest, the Reverend Arthur Finer, a well-loved preacher at Harlem's Trinity Church for 25 years. The fact that Miles has so vocally rejected the faith that Arthur preaches and teaches has led to an extended period of estrangement between the two.

Miles feels he's found his purpose in life hosting a podcast called the Millennial Prophet where he freely speaks his mind on any and all topics, but especially organized religion. That changes when he receives the ultimate friend request. After repeated pokes by “God” (or whoever it is using that name), Miles' curiosity takes over, and he accepts the request and follows the signs to Cara Bloom, an online journalist suffering from writer's block. Brought together by the “God Account,” the two find themselves investigating God's friend suggestions and inadvertently helping others in need, whether those they help even knew that the help was needed at all. The relationship between Miles and Cara is also the beginning of a series-long romantic relationship which burgeons more and more from week to week.

Joining them on their journey are Miles's supportive sister, Ali, a doctoral psych student by day and bartender by night, and his best friend, Rakesh, a sometime hacker who helps Miles and Cara research the enigmatic account. Miles is set on getting to the bottom of what he believes is an elaborate hoax, but in the meantime he will play along and, in the process, change his life forever.

As the weeks go on, we find them reuniting Cara with the mother who deserted the family when Cara was a little girl, helping a man who wife has died by pairing him with a young orphan boy, and even helping the drunk driver who killed Miles’ Mom. You get the idea. It is often funny, but at it’s core, we are talking bleeding-heart, teary-eyed, uplifting stuff. And I have enjoyed it.

According to an article about the series in the Island Packet last month, (3) when the creators of the show set out to create a series with religious ideas at its center, they wanted to bring something innovative to the genre: Doubt. It's a theme that the handful of earlier successful faith-based shows had not tried. Bryan Wynbrandt, the co-executive producer of "God Friended Me," told Religion News Service late last month, “As storytellers, as adults, it just didn't interest us to tell a story that says there is 100 percent [for certain] a God."

Perhaps that is one of the things that appealed to me about the show. I am never concerned about people’s doubts - we all have them in greater or lesser measure through our lives. After all these years in ministry, what terrifies me are the people who are absolutely positive - they KNOW!!! Those people have caused more trouble in the church through the centuries than any others. Remember the Apostle Paul before his conversion, persecuting the church and threatening anyone who would preach Christ. Saul of Tarsus, that Hebrew of the Hebrews, KNEW!!!

As the weeks have progressed on “God Friended Me,” you can see a change in Miles Finer. He is not absolutely positive that there is no God any longer. He has lots of questions, but at least he and his preacher Dad are no longer estranged and they have some really good conversations. Progress.

This brief story of the Magi in Matthew 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? How about Miles Finer? Does God still use the events and activities of people’s lives to attract attention? Does God still guide? How about those unique friend suggestions? 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? Why? Who knows? History is full of stories that echo the same mystery. It has been going on from the beginning. God uses whom God chooses. Perhaps even you. And you and you and you. The gospel by starlight.

Amen.


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

2. Tom Coyne, “Notre Dame astrophysicist has theories on star of Bethlehem,” Associated\ Press, 12/22/2007

3. Falsani, Cathleen, “Before the TV hit `God Friended Me,\' there were two friends\ fascinated with faith, ” Island Packet 12/15/18, 9B

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