The Stars of Christmas
Dr. Jim Denison
Have you heard of Honus Wagner? If you find one of his baseball cards, you’ll be glad to know what you’re about to learn: only seven remain in existence, and are worth half a million dollars apiece. All that for a piece of cardboard.
A Philadelphia man bought a painting at a local flea market for $4. When he examined it at home, he found at its back a copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed on July 4, 1776. It was estimated to be worth more than $1 million. People had passed it by all day long, but none recognized its value.
Franklin Roosevelt and one of his friends were talking late into the night at the White House. At last the president suggested that they go out into the Rose Garden and look at the stars before going to bed. They stared for several minutes into the nebulae with its thousands of stars. Then the president said, “All right, I think we feel small enough now to go in and go to sleep.”
From time immemorial, the stars have drawn us toward heaven, but never more effectively than when a single star led a group of men to worship a Child twenty centuries ago. Unfortunately, most of the world passed it by, even as much of the world still passes by the Child whose birth it announced.
On this Christmas Eve, we’ll think together about the Christmas star in the sky, and the even brighter Christmas star in the stable. And we’ll learn to be Wise Men who follow the first to the second today.
What do we know?
First, let’s understand the setting. The “Magi” were a group of ancient star-gazers or astrologers, probably working for the king of their nation. They were “wise men,” spiritual and philosophical advisers, basing their wisdom on their reading of the skies. This story of their coming to worship a new king based on a star is entirely plausible–they did this sort of thing frequently.
Now, what does God’s word tell us about the object of their star-gazing exploration?
First, the account is told in historic fashion. Nothing here suggests that the star is a myth or poem. From the earliest times, the church has taken this text as the description of an event in history.
Second, the star rose en anatole, “in the east.” This was the ancient term for an “acronical” rising, when an object rises at sunset and is visible all night.
Third, this event was not so spectacular as to elicit wide attention. Herod and his court advisers missed it, as did other ancient historians and records.
Fourth, there is no indication in the text that the star actually led the Magi to Jerusalem. When they saw it, they knew somehow that the star meant the birth of a king, and that they should go to Jerusalem to find him. But nothing in Matthew’s account says that the star actually led the Wise Men to King Herod.
Until now the star of Christmas would be interesting, but explainable in normal terms–a star rises on the horizon, somehow indicating to ancient star-gazers the birth of a new king in Israel. But now the star goes from natural to supernatural: “the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him” (vs. 9-11).
A star appears in the eastern sky, telling a group of Magi that a King of the Jews has been born. It then reappears and guides them to his house and worship. These are the facts as we have them in Scripture.
What can we guess?
Now, what could this star have been? Every plausible explanation has been advanced, all of them interesting but none so compelling as to end the debate. Let’s look briefly at some of the more popular options.
A comet has long been a popular candidate. But there are none recorded around the time of Jesus’ birth. Halley’s Comet would be the closest, appearing in 12 B.C., but that is years before Christmas. And comets were considered to be ominous in the ancient world, never the herald of good news.
Meteors and fireballs are sometimes suggested. But Herod and his court would certainly have noticed such a brilliant phenomenon.
A natural star could account for the first appearance, but not the second. If a star got so close to our planet as to point out a particular house in the town of Bethlehem, it would burn us all up. Imagine our sun getting so close to us.
Some suggest a combination of planets. On September 11 in 3 B.C., Jupiter (the royal planet) came into conjunction with Regulus (the royal star) in Leo (the constellation of kings). The sun was in the constellation of Virgo (symbolic of the virgin), together with the new moon (symbolic of a new birth). And September 11 was the beginning of the Jewish New Year as well. Interesting, but not even a planet could single out an individual house with precision.
What does it mean?
The only explanation which fits the facts is that this was a one-time, miraculous phenomenon. God used a star to alert the Wise Men to the birth of a new king in Israel. Somehow he used that same star to guide them to the Child’s home. And when they found him, they gave him their hearts and gifts in worship. And found the hope, peace, joy, and love he alone can give. The star in the sky led them to the Star on earth.
Now, what if none of it were true? Several years ago, a group of historians asked themselves some interesting questions. What if Lee had not lost at Gettysburg? What if Booth had missed Lincoln? What if Napoleon had escaped to America? And so on. They wrote a book about their discussion titled, If: History Rewritten. Let’s ask their question tonight. What if there were no star in the heavens because there were no star on earth?