Our text for this morning comes from Matthew 2:9-11:
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Perhaps this season of the year has no more beautiful symbol than the star.
At our home during this season, we place a star on the very top of our Christmas tree. Many of you know that we also place a small tree on our son’s grave at Greenlawn. The only decoration on that tree is a brass star on the top branch. A Moravian star on our front porch is the first decoration to be hung at the beginning of Advent and the last to come down and be packed away until next year. At the heart of the Christmas story is the star of Bethlehem, which is not easily understood. Scientists and astronomers have debated what this star was.
We ordinarily think of the birth of Jesus as the year 1, but actually Herod died in the year 4 B.C. Since we know that Jesus’ birth occurred before Herod’s death, the star had to appear before that year. We also know that the calculation of time was not always accurate in the ancient Near East.
The wise men who offered gifts to the Christ-child, or the Magi as they were known, were certainly members of the Zoroastrian religion. Like the Chinese, perhaps the first astronomers in the East, members of this faith kept careful records of what they observed in the sky. They built tall towers like observatories that had a kind of ramp around the outside of the building. Perhaps we have a description of one of those observatories in the Tower of Babel. They gazed from these towers into the night sky, believing that the sky itself was a kind of mirror that reflected events happening on earth. The appearance of this new bright light signaled to them that a new personage – a new king, a person of royalty – had been born on earth. Scriptures present information that the Magi believed the star would lead them to that person.
What was this star?
One possibility, according to the first century Christian named Origen, was that this light must have been a comet.
I have seen two comets. I went out to Dairy Ridge Road during the middle of the night on two occasions and mounted a telescope on the back of a pickup truck. I barely got a faint glimpse of Haley’s Comet because its last passing by the earth was not spectacular. Ten years later when the comet named Hale-Bopp passed the earth, it was clearly visible, even in the middle of the daytime from the Morningside parking lot.
Comets are visible for a while, though I doubt they remained visible long enough for the Wise Men to actually follow it. When traveling by caravan a trip from Babylon – beyond the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq and Iran – would have taken several weeks. The fact that most people in the ancient Near East thought that a comet brought bad news, not good news, militates against a comet being the light source.
This heavenly being, whatever it was, had to remain visible for a while. This leaves out meteors, which burn up quickly. A very bright meteor, which appeared above Russia on February 15 of this year, had the force of about twenty atomic bombs, the type of bomb dropped on Hiroshima. That meteor did considerable damage in that country even though it had exploded 76,000 feet or fourteen miles above ground. Its visibility ended quickly. The star of Bethlehem probably was not a meteor.
Some say that the light might have been a nova. Ten or twelve of those occur every year in our own galaxy, but they are not readily visible from the earth. Others suggest the star was a new planet or perhaps a new star. Could the light have been caused by a conjunction of planets? That certainly would have created a bright appearance in the sky, but again it would not have lasted very long.
Perhaps the best choice among the possibilities astronomers have named is a supernova, an exploding star. As a star dies, it becomes hot and intense white. Finally it implodes, creating an intense brilliance that can last for several weeks. A supernova is actually even brighter than the sun. The last time a supernova was visible from earth was in the 1600s.
Now I turn to science fiction. Some of you, perhaps, are science fiction fans. Arthur Clarke’s short story entitled “The Star” tells of a Jesuit astrophysicist, an atheist astrophysicist, and a research team, travelling by spaceship into deep space to explore a supernova. They examine the remains of this exploded star and find remaining in this universe one planet, located far away.
An ancient civilization, which had known that its star was dying, archived all its records on this one planet. The people then erected a tower so that anyone who came would find what they had left. It would be similar to our own sun growing white-hot and dying and people on earth collecting all of the records about our civilization on faraway Pluto.
The team in Clarke’s story explores the region and indeed finds the tower. The researchers learn that this lost civilization had been very well developed. It had a rich history, during which time art, music, and literature flourished. The tower held chronicles of all military battles, and records noted a thousand years of peace. These scientists were so grateful that this ancient civilization had left behind records but grieved at the destruction of life when the star exploded.
The Jesuit astrophysicist was given the responsibility of determining exactly when the supernova exploded. After doing careful calculations – using some of the gaseous material found in the supernova and observing items included in the archives – he calculated that the supernova had exploded 3020 years earlier. In earth time, the explosion would have occurred at the time of the birth of Jesus. He determined the latitude and the longitude of the exact place on earth where this supernova would have been most clearly visible: Bethlehem.
Clarke’s science fiction tale was later made into an episode of the Twilight Zone. You can actually find it online on YouTube. In Clarke’s fascinating story of this supernova, the star of Bethlehem represented the sacrifice of one civilization so that the Prince of Peace could be identified by another.
The truth is that the identity of the Christmas star remains a great mystery.
What about those Magi? The men were of the Zoroastrian religion, seeing the sky as a mirror. They were from Persia and Babylon – Iran and Iraq. Their names have been identified in Christian tradition as Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar. Their three gifts, strange gifts indeed for a baby, were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why those gifts? Gold is suitable for a king; the one born in Bethlehem would be “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Frankincense is an appropriate gift for a great high priest, which Jesus was called in Hebrews 4. Myrrh was an embalming spice. This Savior would give his life for the salvation of the world. We have assumed that three wise men visited Jesus because of the number of gifts mentioned in the Bible.
Henry Van Dyke crafted, at the end of the nineteenth century, one of the most fascinating Christmas stories I have ever read. My mother first introduced me to the story this clergyman entitled “The Other Wise Man.” Van Dyke introduced a fourth wise man named Artaban, who also has gifts of precious gems to present to the king: a sapphire as blue as the Persian sky, a ruby as red as human blood, and a white pearl – perfect in shape and luster. Artaban protects these three gems by keeping them in a small leather pouch, tucked inside the sash of his robes.
Artaban begins his journey to meet and travel with three comrades in a caravan to follow the star. He rides across the desert at night on a black Arabian horse and comes to an oasis where he refreshes himself and his horse. Hearing in the darkness the cry of a human voice, Artaban turns aside and finds a man who is very much like the one left on the road to Jericho. The man has been beaten, robbed, and left for dead. Because Artaban is a magus who knows the secrets of ancient medicinal art, he treats this man’s wounds. Realizing that he cannot leave the injured man alone, Artaban places the man on his own horse and resumes his trip across the desert. His assistance, of course, slows the trip, resulting in Artaban’s missing the rendezvous with the other Magi.
When Artaban arrives at the city on the edge of the desert, he wants to provide for the injured man’s care. After selling the sapphire at the market for a great deal of money, he gives part of it to an innkeeper and says, “You take care of this man until he is healed. If I owe you more, I will pay you on a return trip.” He must also purchase the items needed to continue his trip alone.
Eager to catch up with his comrades who have gone ahead of him, he asks the townspeople wherever he goes, “Have you seen my comrades?”
The people answer, “Yes, they were here before you. They were moving quickly, so you must hurry to catch them.”
Artaban presses forward, using the star as a guide. Following the arc of the Fertile Crescent, he finally comes to the city of Jerusalem. There he inquires again, “Have you seen my comrades who came here before me?”
The people respond, “Yes, they received instructions from advisors at King Herod’s court.”
Artaban goes to the court of King Herod. He does not actually meet with Herod; instead, he meets the king’s advisors and tells them, “You gave my comrades some instruction. Can you please tell me where they went?”
The advisors answer, “We read Scripture to them and told them that they must travel to the town of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.”
Artaban makes his way toward Bethlehem, surprised to find the entire town in chaos. Young male children are being put to the sword, slaughtered. Mothers are weeping and crying, and fathers are trying to protect their families. They, too, are being killed.
Artaban steps inside one home and sees a terribly frightened mother, holding her son. Fear is evident in her eyes.
With a loud knock at the door, the captain of the guard enters the home and demands the child. Without a moment’s hesitation, Artaban removes the ruby from his purse, presses it into the hand of the commander, and says, “Take your men and leave this town.” The captain accepts the bribe and withdraws with his soldiers.
Artaban moves among the grieving people of the town, doing what he can to console them. After a few days, he says, “Some of my fellow travelers were bringing gifts to Bethlehem. They had followed a star, knowing that a king was to be born here.”
People answer, “Yes, they were here. Because they feared Herod though, they returned to their home another way.”
“And what of the king?”
“The family – a carpenter, a young mother, and the child identified as the King – fled into Egypt.”
Artaban continues his search, journeying into Egypt. He still has one gem, one pearl to offer as a gift. He travels up and down the Nile Valley, then goes into the delta and stays there a number of years. He never finds the king, but he does find widows who need care, orphans who have no home, and lepers – the outcasts of society – and prisoners who need redemption. Everywhere he goes, Artaban uses his resources to help those in need.
After remaining in Egypt for nearly thirty years, Artaban has become an old man. He decides to return home to the land of his birth. He travels back the way he had come – back through Bethlehem and back into Jerusalem. When he enters the city during the spring of the year, the streets are crowded with Jewish people, celebrating the festival called the Feast of the Passover. Artaban does not fully understand this festival that marked salvation for the Jewish people.
Artaban presses his way through the crowd and sees a very strange sight – a procession of Roman soldiers leading a prisoner to be crucified. Artaban catches a glimpse of a sign above the cross the man is carrying, a sign that says something about “King of the Jews.” Artaban wonders, Could this be the king, the one I have been searching for for so long? Wanting to get a better look, he tries to move closer. The man stumbles and drops the cross. Roman soldiers order an African, a man from Cyrene, to carry it up the hill shaped like a skull, the hill people called Golgotha.
Artaban still wants a closer look, so he turns down a back alley. There he sees Partheon soldiers, dragging a young girl who was screaming and crying for help. Artaban stops them and asks, “What are you doing?”
They answer, “Her father could not pay his debts, so we are selling her into slavery.”
Without hesitation, Artaban reaches in his pouch and pulls out the pearl, the one remaining gem meant for the king. He hands it to the Partheon soldiers and says, “This should buy her freedom.” They release the girl.
Suddenly the sky turns dark over Jerusalem, and the ground begins to quake. A stone, dislodged from a nearby building, strikes Artaban on the head. He falls on his back to the pavement, mortally wounded. As he lies dying, he looks into the sky and finally sees the King who says to him, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
Would you like to see the King? If so, minister to the King’s children. Minister to those in need. I promise that doing so will give you an opportunity to glimpse the “King of kings and Lord of lords.” If you have never acknowledged him before, accept the invitation of our Lord, to know Jesus as your Savior. What better time do you have than now? You are invited to respond.Kirk H. Neely © December 2013