Following Yonder Star
Perhaps the most uplifting verse in Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story is this: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
Today I would like for us to think together about that star—the Star of Bethlehem. Stars have always held people in thrall. Philip Bailey called them “the scriptures of the skies.” Lord Byron labeled them “The poetry of heaven.” And Longfellow said that they are “the forget-me-nots of the angels.” We all love to look at the stars. How appropriate then that one of the symbols of the significance of Jesus Christ to our human experience should be a star. Therefore, in our minds and hearts, I want us to follow that star so that like the Wise Men of old, we might come to see Jesus.
Of course, there has been much speculation across the centuries as to what the Star of Bethlehem was. Some early scholars, up to and including Kepler in the early seventeenth century, said that it was an unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, together with Mars, which would have created an unusually bright light in the night sky. Astronomers have calculated that such a conjunction of these planets actually occurred in 6 B.C. Still other scholars have advanced the theory that it was a comet. While it could not have been what we call Halley’s Comet—that comet appears every 75 years and it transversed the skies in 12 B.C.—the fact is that ancient Chinese astronomical records, which are amazingly accurate, tell of an extraordinarily spectacular comet which appeared for some seventy days in the spring of 5 B.C. Yet as appealing as those theories may be, they fail to explain adequately the heavenly phenomenon which we call the Star of Bethlehem.
In more recent times, the science of astronomy has produced an explanation which is much more acceptable, and it brings us into confrontation with one of the most amazing spectacles in all of the natural world. In fact, what I am about to share with you is so vast and mind-stretching that you are going to have to put your brains in high gear to digest it.
As you know, stars as we observe them on earth appear to be quite steady in their brilliance. Eon after eon they remain in order and in place and glow consistently. The North Star, for example, looked the same to dinosaurs as it does to us. However, occasionally there is a phenomenon in nature in which a star, for some reason which we do not understand, explodes. An exploding star is called a “nova.” In a nova, it is possible for a star to be magnified in its brilliance more than 100,000 times in less than a few hours. Now these novas occur fairly frequently in the night sky. And while they cannot be observed with the naked eye, astronomers with telescopes are able to study them.
On very rare occasions, there can occur novas especially large in size—they are called “supernovas.” A supernova will magnify the light of a star a thousand million times. The last supernova that was observed on earth appeared in 1604. The records indicate that it was overpowering in its brightness—in fact it was so bright that it could be seen even during the day. Furthermore, its continuous explosions gave it the appearance of movement. Now interestingly enough, those ancient Chinese astronomical records revealed that in the year 4 B.C., a dramatically different astral event occurred. It was not a comet or the conjunction of other planets. The description of that event sounds like what we know as a supernova, and when you take into account the subsequent errors made in forming the calendar which we use today, the birth of Jesus probably took place in 4 B.C.
So the theory as to the origin of the Star of Bethlehem most accepted today is this: That three thousand years before Jesus was born—back in the days when the great pyramids were being built in Egypt—three thousand years before the Bethlehem experience, God caused a supernova to occur out in space, eighteen quadrillion miles from the earth (that’s the number 18 with 15 zeroes behind it). The reason it had to happen 3000 years before Christ was born was because it would take that long for the light from that supernova to travel through space and to be visible here on earth. And when it did become visible the spectacle was so rare and so overpowering that the people who were the most sophisticated astronomers of that day—the Magi, the Wise Men—would have been jolted by its sight and its size and would have been moved to follow it until it led them ultimately to the cradle of the King.
Of course, as mind-stretching as that explanation may be, even more astounding are the implications of the Star of Bethlehem for us. You see, the Star speaks to us of both God’s law and God’s love. Let me explain…
The Star of Bethlehem shows us the stability of God’s law.
Think of it. Three thousand years before Christmas, God used His laws of space and light and time to put this spectacular birth announcement in the sky. This orderly God using an orderly process according to orderly natural laws governing an orderly universe brought the Wise Men to the cradle of the Christ Child.
You see, it is no accident that we call where we are the “universe.” The word “uni” means “one.” There is one creating, motivating, guiding, ordering, balancing cause which has established the natural laws applying to everything in existence from supernovas to sunflowers. One of the most fascinating aspects of modern scientific research is that more and more prominent scientists are being drawn to that conclusion. In other words, if all creation came into being as a result of a “Big Bang,” someone had to light the fuse! And this one causative force, God, who established the natural order with such stability that we can set our watches by it and live out the seasons of our lives within it, also has established a moral order which is just as stable and just as certain.
Oh, I know. There are those in our society today who would have us believe that notions about there being moral absolutes built into the world are obsolete. It is my understanding—or at least it was reported in the paper—that Ted Turner, the media mogul, recently delivered a speech to some national organization in which he stated that the Ten Commandments are passed’ and he offered ten suggestions of his own to replace them. If that’s what he said then let me call it what it is: poppycock produced by a squishy intellect and an egotistical heart!
My friends, the moral laws of God are the glue that holds life together on this planet, whether we like it or not. And people can no more succeed in breaking the moral order of God than they can go against God’s natural law of gravity. People don’t break God’s moral law, they break themselves against it. What we see in the collapsing society about us is not the collapse of God’s will, but the collapse of individuals and institutions who hurl themselves against God’s will, and because they oppose it are being destroyed by it. As surely as the stars move in their courses, God’s moral law moves to its inevitable conclusion in our lives and in our world and in our universe.
I suppose that the only thing that troubles me about Christmas is that so many people are happy to let Jesus be a baby in a manger, but they are not willing to let Him be the sovereign Lord of their lives. They don’t mind celebrating His birth, but they don’t want to accept His commands. They sing of His nativity, but they reject His authority. They adore Him as an infant but they will not yield to living life as He called us to live it. They commemorate His coming at Christmas with lip service while ignoring the point of it all—that God is in charge and His way is the only way, His law is the only law, and His son is our only hope.
During the French Revolution, that awful convulsion that tore tradition to tatters, Jean St. Andrade, a revolutionary and an atheist, spoke to a poor simple farmer and said: “I will have all your steeples pulled down so that you will have nothing to remind you of the silly superstition of your faith in Christ.” “Ah,” the farmer replied, “but you cannot help but leave us the stars. Tear down the steeples; strip away any sign of Jesus Christ you wish, but the first time we go out and lift our eyes toward the heavens we will see the stars and remember that somebody else put them there.”
Yes, my friends, it’s absurd to think we could ever ignore or destroy the moral laws and absolutes God has written into the universe—just as absurd as it would be to believe that we could stop or contain a supernova. Is it any wonder then that as Matthew put it, “when they saw the star they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”?
But the Star of Bethlehem not only shows us the stability of God’s law, it also shows us the stability of God’s love.
That is where the star led those Wise Men, to a stable. I imagine that was something of a shock to them. They probably expected to be led to some ornate palace, some royal estate. And as they stood there in undistinguished Bethlehem looking down at a helpless babe, bedded down by simple peasant parents, they must have thought to themselves: “There must be some mistake.” But no, there was no mistake. And they got the message. God so loves that He dared to come in lowliness as testimony to His compassionate caring for you and for me.
A couple of years ago, I led a retreat for our Presbyterian missionaries and chaplains in Korea. One day, I was visiting with an older chaplain during a coffee break. I asked him how he answered young men who requested special prayers for themselves as they prepared to go into combat. He replied: “I always say to such a one, ‘Son, I cannot pray special prayers for you. I cannot pray for you anything that I do not pray for everyone who is headed into battle. But here’s what I can do. I can go with you.’ “
“I can go with you.” That’s the message of that spectacular, scintillating star shining above the stable. It is God saying to us: “I cannot protect you from all the hurts and heartaches which are a part of life. But I do love you enough to be with you and to never leave you.”
Howard Thurman was a great black preacher of this century. In his book Jesus And the Disinherited, he tells of how when he was a little boy, Halley’s Comet came around. Because he was young and was put to bed early every night, he didn’t see the comet but heard everyone talking about it. Then one night, having questioned his mother about it all, she wakened him in the middle of night and took him out in the backyard. He stood there transfixed as the comet with its great fantail sped across the night sky. Writing of this years later, Thurman said: “I felt the silence of absolute motion. I asked my mother, ‘What will happen if the comet falls out of the sky?’ She didn’t answer. I turned and looked at her. As she looked up into the heavens I saw the same light in her face that I saw when she prayed. Then she said to me, ‘Never fear, Howard, no matter what happens to you in life, never fear. The comet is just another sign that God is with us and will take care of us.'”
There’s great eloquence in the testimony of that pious woman. Never fear, the same God who keeps the stars in their courses cares about us. Never fear, the same God who sets supernovas to exploding has His hand on your life and mine. Never fear, the same God who demonstrates the inevitability of His law in the heavens also demonstrates the inevitability of His love in our hearts. Never fear, the same God who with a word formed the vastness of the heavens and the earth also says to little you and little me: “I am with you.”
That’s the message the Wise Men received as they sought the infant King and knelt before Him. And that is why we say today: “Those who are wise still seek Him.” Those who understand that know why it is written on the pages of Scripture:
“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”