A Sign in the Heavens
I know that many of us are very focused on Christmas at this time. There are two verses that I want to bring out from the story.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’ (Matthew 2:1–2)
We know how Herod reacted to this news, and he sent them to Bethlehem.
When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. (vv. 9–11)
For all of us there are probably different parts of the Christmas story that particularly live, and perhaps different verses that encapsulate it for us. For me, it is always something about these two verses: We have seen his star in the east (or: We have seen his star as it rose), and have come to worship him, and then: When they saw his star again, they rejoiced with exceeding joy.
Even in the secular world there is a tremendous focus on Christmas. As one of you texted to me, this from one point of view is a good thing. It is very interesting that so much attention is being given, for it is a Christian festival, although many people who celebrate Christmas are hardly aware of that fact. Also there is a certain joy and happiness that affects even people who don’t understand where it comes from: it really is still the overflow of the joy of that first coming of Christ.
Among many signs that foretold it was the sign of the Star. Very interestingly, this Christmas week sees a crossing of the planets Saturn and Jupiter on 21 December, and if our skies are clear enough we will see what will look like an exceedingly bright star. Astronomers reckon that it happened about 2,000 years ago also; they have been able to work back to when these phenomena would occur. Could it have been something like that that the wise men saw? There were astronomic phenomena in the skies around the time of Christ’s birth, not exactly to where we date it. There was great belief in the pagan world that there was coming a ruler and a king, and they felt that the signs in the heavens such as this were foretelling it. This is documented by Roman historians such as Tacitus and Suetonius, who recorded the belief among many people that there would emerge a ruler of the earth, and he would actually come from Judea. But of course the Roman emperor Augustus was born about this time also, and came to his throne as the first emperor, and many saw in him the fulfilment of this promised messianic figure. Even in 5–2 BC, in the Egyptian month of Mesori, the daystar arose at sunrise with exceeding brilliance. And that word mesori means ‘the birth of a prince’. So we see that even secular history tells us there were phenomena. I don’t myself have any difficulty in believing that God had a star for Christ, not recorded generally but seen by the wise men, and that, as someone has suggested, that star was the Shekineh glory that had been homeless since the Temple had been destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant lost, now finding its home again on earth in the person of Christ, born that night in Bethlehem. But isn’t it a beautiful picture? We have seen his star in the east, and we have come to worship him.
As for the wise men (we assume there were three because there were three gifts, but we don’t know for certain), there certainly were people called Magi, wise men, who did read the stars, and who did interpret dreams. And so it’s not at all an uncommon or unbelievable thing that they should have come at the Saviour’s birth – as the poem says: ‘A cold coming we had of it’ – just at the very worst time of the year. There is something about that, the coming of the Magi, to where Christ was born, coming at a hard time of the year, but coming to worship this one to whom the doors were shut: with no room in the inn, born in a stable (probably a cave), born in a hard world that was full of darkness, full of sin, that part of the world ruled by a very wicked king, Herod, with unbelievable cruelty. Into that world He came, heralded by the angels where music heralded often the birth of a son, and there was no music for Christ but this music of the angels singing; and the wise men come and they find Him in the stable. There in that stable it is hard not to feel the light; there could even have been a physical light coming from Him; but there would certainly be the sense of the light of the presence of God.
But also, in the words of Graham Kendrick’s lovely hymn ‘Thorns in the straw’:
And did she see there
In the straw by his head a thorn?
And did she smell myrrh
In the air on that starry night?
There was a thorn there, wasn’t there? We know that. We know that the sword was piercing Mary’s heart: she would already have suffered even before Christ was born. And we know that the world was dark. But nothing can take away from that light that came with the birth of the Saviour, Jesus, who would save His people from their sins. And even for us – although we know the birth of Christ is to be followed by His death on the cross, there is to me an unalloyed joy at the heart of Christmas, mirrored in the beauty of that shining Star. They rejoiced with exceeding joy when they saw the Star again, because there is the light of God there in Christ: He is that light, and not all the darkness in the world can encroach upon it or upon His joy and what He came to share with us. They brought Him beautiful gifts: the gold fit for a king, or so often associated with deity. They brought Him frankincense associated with the priestly worship, and He is the Priest, the bridge builder. They brought Him myrrh, given for the One about to die. They brought Him treasure, but they found that He was the treasure.
Gifts to the Saviour I’m bringing,
Love’s richest treasure to lay…
But what gift have we to give Him except what He has given us? And we find He is the treasure.
Just as at Bethlehem the darkness can’t take away from the beauty of the light, so we find that not only at the beginning of his life is that the case, but also at the end of His life that is the case. How dark it grew at Calvary as the hordes of hell were summoned to try to extinguish that light of the dying Saviour, who perhaps seemed to be taking the light of the world with Him, as Dorothy Sayers says. But in actual fact, as in Bethlehem that night a kingdom was born in the hearts of those who saw Him and believed on Him, how much more at Calvary, where it seemed that the darkness was winning, was the light being established for ever and the kingdom being born and established in the hearts of men and women, till myriad myriads are now the guardians of that light, and the treasure is lodged deep within our heart. And that is something to truly rejoice and believe in, that the Christ is not now in a manger but He is actually within us, His life, His light inside. And if the enemy still tries to extinguish that light, he cannot touch Christ now. He never could touch that light, although he tried. He tries to do it in you and in me, but that light is stronger than any darkness in any assault and in any suffering. Indeed, the treasure that is Christ that has taken residence within shows all the brighter against the dark background, as the star shines when it is dark.
For some today there could be a cup of grief. There has been much bereavement this year. There has been difficulty of various sorts. If some of you feel cocooned in a place of worship and delight, that’s wonderful. But if you have found the enemy has tried to put a dark wing over your joy, remember: he cannot touch that light that is the Lord Jesus Christ, and He remains ours. The sorrows of Bethlehem never can remove the exceeding joy. So it is also at Calvary: the glory exceeds even the suffering. And because of Calvary, for you and for me our light affliction is but for a moment, and is not to be compared with the exceeding weight of glory. Let us bring our worship to this King.
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