St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Epiphany, January 6, 2013
“When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.”
AN OLD MAN sees a vision. He looks far away, and for a time no one can get his attention. When he speaks, his words make no sense. Then he says: Here is what will be. Signs come first, then the event, one foretold, the end of the world, or the beginning of new life, dramatic changes for all.
Prophecies are breakthroughs: someone contacts Spirit, and sees what only God knows. What qualifications set apart one elect to see the unutterable? Sometimes, no qualifications at all. A shepherd looks up and sees angels in the sky. A peasant sees a glorious lady telling him wonderful things. Some kids are met on a hilltop. A donkey speaks to his impatient rider. That impatient rider tells a king about a king that’s yet to come.
There are many kings in the Bible. In Abraham’s day, every city in the Near East had a king. There was a king of Sodom, kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar, to name a few. We might call them mayors, or warlords. Some of these made war with the other kings and kidnapped their people and goods, carrying them off. Abraham, a nomadic king of sorts, gave chase and defeated some such marauders; restored the stolen goods and freed the captives. At Salem, he met Melchizedek, a king and priest of the true God. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek from the spoils and was given a feast of bread and wine. Gen 14 This moment might get past us, except that David later ascribed to Melchizadek a priesthood like the coming Messiah. Ps 110 Hebrews would spend two chapters examining how Jesus fulfilled a role prefigured by Melchizadek. Oh yes, and Salem later became Jerusalem.
Bible Kings were numerous, but scarcely a dozen mentions of stars. God created stars the fourth day. Then that impatient donkey rider comes, hired to curse the tribes of Israel. The king of Moab is frightened to see millions of ex-slaves led by a pillar of smoke and seeking a land to conquer. So he hires Balaam, the most renowned seer of his day. Balaam comes to curse the Jews, but he warns king Balak that he may only say what God puts in his mouth. He pronounces three blessings on the people spread out on the plains below. Then Balaam gets that look. A vision. He speaks: “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” Num 24:15-20
That was all. A star out of Jacob. A future king. The Hebrews learned of this prophecy and kept it, along with the record of their travels, failures and successes. Centuries would go by and the Jews never looked up once to see a new star. They were not star gazers, but followed the one true God of heaven.
Another race with another prophet came out of the East, and Zoroaster gave his own people his vision of One God. They followed this bright God they named Ahura Mazda, whose symbol was fire, and whose priests watched the heavens for signs. Fate crossed the two peoples together at the fall of Babylon: the Jews, once captives, the Persians, a new empire. They learned of each other, and Cyrus the Great granted the Jews’ desire to return and rebuild their nation. But the priests of Persia took note of the ancient prophecy of Balaam and a star that would rise in Israel.
Centuries passed. A series of planetary convergences alerted Zoroastrian wise men, called magi, religious and scientific scholars, in old Persia, to watch the skies more closely. Saturn, Jupiter and Mars came to within a few degrees of one another, then changed direction, looking as though they might collide. Then they flew on, but the magi watched, and waited. One night, so dim it might have been missed, they saw it. A new star, in fact a supernova millions of light-years distant. They searched the records, the prophecies of all times. Where is a star foretold, a new star…? Israel. “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel.” It’s the birth of that king. What else do these records tell? A king will be born to be a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, a Messiah spoken of even on the shores of their land by Daniel, a revered prophet who had served in the Persian courts, advising the Shah. It fit the prophecies so closely. These wisemen packed their camels, obtained rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and set off toward Israel.
Prophecies abound in every culture. Some come true, some are just bunk. We’ve survived signs of the ancient Mayans, showing an end of world 10 years ago. Prophecies of great leaders, ice ages, class struggles, planetary doom, the Millennium Bug and the Age of Aquarius pop up every year in the tabloids. We laugh and shrug them off. Most are silly and come from spurious sources. We’ll only rely on prophecy if we live in the time of its fulfillment. In fact, the only benefit from such a word is to see it come true. And yet, most always it comes as a surprise. Then folks look back and there was the foretelling of these days, and with that comes understanding.
Crazy King Herod, the Temple priests, scribes and Jewish scholars: none of them saw any stars, new or old. They lived and grumbled and survived in a Roman world. Suddenly out of the distant East come these camels, with magi from Persia, and a question: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” Matt 2:1 Herod was the worst man on earth to ask such a question. He had already executed two of his own sons for even looking sideways at their monarch father. He ruthlessly guarded his throne. Now some upstart is born to take it away? He quietly planned to murder yet another rival.
This star the magi saw was not stationary, set rigidly over Bethlehem, we observe. Otherwise the magi would have gone straight there. But they came to Jerusalem, to the palace, where a king would logically be born. It was not so, and other prophecies had to be consulted. This time it was Micah: “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah… out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.” They informed the magi, who gladly rode off to find him. Herod gathered his team of assassins and waited.
They sought a king. And why? Did not the Persians already have their own king? Indeed, and the Shah or Emperor had long ruled the East. What did they come looking for?
God sends a vision, a prophecy, and makes it evident to those with better eyes and deeper faith that something more than was written is coming. All the Old Testament scriptures that tell of Messiah, the priest forever, the descendant of David, the suffering servant: put together they describe a baffling, almost conflicting story of one who will come to rule with iron, yet be flailed and pierced, tortured to save us all from sin. His dominion will be world-wide, and he will be rejected. Yet, lacking the understanding to unravel this web of words and divine outbursts, no one in the days of Jesus put it together so that they went and greeted the new baby king born in a stable, heralded by a star gone nova.
We come to a church this morning seeking something. Our lives are like those of the ancient people, ordered by custom, dictated by necessity, fraught with personal disappointments, spurred by desires for better days. We live in hope and are chased by despair. We want something more to happen. Don’t we each have things we pray for, every day, and wait to see God’s hand turn the key and release our lives from this waiting room?
We wait for God, and we watch the horizon. The magi, you and I aren’t so different.
Christian prophecies, words from the New Testament, tell of things yet to come. The interpretation of them is tricky, and many have assumed their fulfillment, proclaiming the end of everything, and been wrong, time and again. Date setting is something Jesus warned against.
But Jesus also gave St. John the most wonderful vision and prophecy ever granted humankind. He was shown the judgment of the world, the reaping of the saints, a new heaven and earth, and eternal life in direct communion with God at a feast. Christ promised many things, like: “He who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations… as I also have received from My Father; and I will give him the morning star.” Rev 2:26-28 “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come! And let him who hears say, Come! And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” Rev 22:16-17
We look for the King to return, and this time He will shine like the new star Himself, from horizon to horizon, astride a white charger, and wearing a robe that proclaims, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. Whatever we still need at that time, whatever dreams unfulfilled, whatever needs yet unmet, will be filled to the fullest and surpassing our dreams.
You have the stars’ testimony on it.
Your king shall come.
Keep seeking Him, and keep up the prayers.
He hears, He cares, and He is coming again.