St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 2019
“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.”
“We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star. O Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.” We have sung this song since we were children, and with the wisdom of children we accepted the tale of three kings of old: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. What truly happened in the skies over Bethlehem in the day that Jesus was born? Who were these strange travelers from distant lands, and why did they come? Not a great deal is known for sure about either, but we can only solve this mystery if we first learn what the scriptures truly said, and what they didn’t say, about the wise men and the star they followed.
First, we don’t know any real names, or whether there were three or some other number of them. We only read that they brought with them gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. St. Matthew, the only Gospel writer who discusses the subject at all, calls them “magi,” a term for mystic Zoroastrian scientists from the Persian Empire. These priestly magi studied the heavens for signs portending great events, and they occasionally arrived with words of divine revelation to world leaders when they read the signs in the sky. What sign was the Star of Bethlehem and why did it bring these magi to the crib of the baby Jesus?
Many theories have been offered over the two millennia. With today’s astronomical science, we can look backward in time with computer modeling to find past stellar events through current evidence. Comets return like clockwork, supernovas leave vast clouds of nebulae in the sky from exploding stars, and the planetary convergences are as regular as a train schedule. The difficulty of the Star of Bethlehem is that it was remarkable enough to bring these students of the sky, but not remarkable enough to cause anyone in Israel to notice a new star, to understand it, or to record it.
In a book called The Star of Bethlehem, written by astronomer Mark Kidger, this scientist-author cites candidates for the Star. He first recognizes that the original dating of Christ’s birth by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 A.D., gives us our modern years, like 2019 A.D., but miscalculated the year of Christ’s Nativity by 5 years, due to missed years in the reigns of certain Caesars. We may forgive this Scythian monk his error, but we can find it awkward to refer to Jesus’ birth taking place in 5 B.C., or 5 years “before Christ.” The error was found when historians learned the real year that king Herod died in Jericho: in 4 B.C. So, Jesus could not have been born later than 4 or 5 B.C. What events happened in the ancient skies around that time?
At first sight, no single heavenly event appears to have happened that would have brought wise men 3 months’ ride from the other end of the Fertile Crescent. But Kidger has assembled a series of celestial events that certainly would lead the astrologers to the infant king. In 7 B.C. there was a triple convergence of Jupiter and Saturn. Between May and December, these planets that normally passed one another—Jupiter racing by Saturn—stopped and seemed to revert, Jupiter passing Saturn again backwards. Then the effect reversed again and Jupiter passed Saturn and kept going. This kind of thing would wake up the wise men. They’d keep watching.
Right after this convergence, in February of 6 B.C., Jupiter, Saturn and Mars came within 8 degrees of one another in the constellation Pisces. This was also unusual, but not so close that it would have been mistaken for a star. The magi noted this fact, and got more excited.
One year later, in February of 5 B.C., a new crescent moon passed very close to Jupiter, while Mars and Saturn paired off slightly west of them. This series of rare planetary occurrences could have set the magi to look for a final sign. They were not long to wait: for in March of 5 B.C., according to records now found in China and Korea, a nova, an exploding star very distant from earth, but visible in its death agony, blazed between Capricorn and Aquila. The nova was seen in the east at the first light of dawn. It shone for over 70 days, just long enough for them to travel to Bethlehem before it disappeared. They already knew this was about Israel and a new king. But how?
During the Hebrews migration from Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan, an earlier seer named Balaam prophesied over the children of Israel, saying: “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel… and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion.” Numbers 24:15-19
The magi were Persian, and had had close connection to the Jews and their sacred literature for centuries since the Babylonian Captivity. The Persians befriended the Jews, and restored them to the lands from which the Babylonians had taken them in the 6th century B.C. From this relationship, a sharing of cultures and wisdom enriched both people. The magi, who would not have distained the prophecy of a God-believing Gentile like Balaam, may have pondered the meaning of this Star that would announce a great king. The position in the skies of the planetary convergences and gatherings thus indicated Israel. The nova set their feet racing to saddle their camels and depart: westward leading, the newborn star before them.
I know that all the fictional accounts of this romantic trio show a star that sits over Bethlehem like a street lamp, shining down on the manger. But Matthew says they didn’t ride there but to Jerusalem, asking its king where the baby might be born. Only when his priests informed them Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem did the magi set their path south to that village. And by then, the fame from shepherds’ acclamations would have the whole town buzzing with the ready news of a miraculous child.
The Star of Bethlehem was not a myth. It was a quiet sign, just made for the mystery-seeking magi. It brought Gentiles to recognize the king who was born not only for the Jews, but for the world and gives us the season of Epiphany, a shining forth, with its symbol: a star. In the accounts of Jesus’ life, the first mention of anyone worshiping Him is when these wise men from the East brought their gifts and bowed down. What could this strange meeting of Persian wise men and the tiny family of David’s bloodline mean today?
In this year, 2019 A.D., Persians will mark 40 years since the fall of their Shah and the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the violence and insanity of that revolution, millions of Iranians, many of them highly educated, departed their homeland destined for Europe, Australia, and America. Their higher learning and work ethic has made them successful immigrants wherever they have gone. The shadow of Islam, since 651 A.D. over Persia’s ancient culture, was left behind by most of those fleeing Khomeini and his henchmen, knowing this as the ultimate fruit of Islam: fear, hatred and death. They no longer see themselves as Moslems. A very religious people, they are stripped of the religion that robbed them of their homeland.
My Persian wife, Giti, became a Christian also 40 years ago, during those revolutionary times that ravaged her birthplace of Tehran. While Americans were learning the word, ‘I-RAN’, for the first time, she was praying to our Lord that her people might become Christians. No one believed her prayers possible. Many felt them foolishly prayed: these were the enemy. Why should they be saved? She kept praying. Some 24 years ago, we learned of others interested in the conversion of Iranians. We found Iranian Christians, like the magi, worshiping Jesus Christ in Farsi. Persian churches across America now reach exiled Persians with the Gospel. These folks, sickened with the failure of their old religion, are ready for the Messiah who comes for all people.
Today, millions of Iranians are becoming Christians, in the West and in Iran. Our friend, Hormoz Shariat, with his Iran Alive ministry, transmits satellite Christian television programming into Iran, and talks by cellphone to new believers there live. Like the star that first led Persians to Jesus, a stationary satellite now beams truth back into Iran with the news that Jesus Christ, Isa Massi, is the One they’ve been praying and waiting for. They look up with every household in Iran mounting dishes on their rooftops and searching the skies for better news than their regime tells them. Giti, and her brother Cyrus, each have 30-minute shows teaching life in Christ, airing worldwide 7 times weekly. Iran has been cited as the fastest evangelizing nation in the world.
The power of the original Islamic conquest of Persia, 6 centuries after the Apostle Thomas first took the Gospel there, now loosens its grip on the minds of all Iranians. They have always quietly resented this imposition of a faith enforced by a sword. Now they come to Jesus Christ as their own true Middle Eastern Savior, and a country that is the major source of Islamic terror becomes a haven for Christians and a light to the entire Middle East.
The signs are quiet, but definite. Like a few planetary convergences: not very remarkable until you add them up, and know the prophecies. Jeremiah 49:39, after a longer prophesy about the downfall of Elam, a Persian territory, says: “But it shall come to pass in the latter days, that I will bring again the captivity of Elam, saith the Lord.” The captivity of Elam could easily be defined as the capture of Persia by Islam, and the exodus of its people across the globe, and then a return to Persia orchestrated by God Himself who loves the Persian people, the people who first of all the Gentile world came from afar to worship the king of the Jews. Wise folk may seek Him still.
A star was seen in the East. Wise men followed the sign to bring their people’s praises to Him. The wise seek Him still today. Would you join my wife and I now in her prayers for the Persian people to come to the light of that star? Your prayers could truly change the course of human history, even stop a world war, even save millions to Christ, even end the falsehood of Islam deceiving 1.5 billion people. Is that worth looking to heavens along with the magi 2,024 years ago who saw things they thought they understood and so set out to follow a star?