The Star vs. the Angels, a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12

The summer before my last year in high school, my family took the long drive from Georgia, where we lived, back to Texas for a Boswell family reunion. I don’t remember much about it except we stayed at a camping place near Lake Whitney. There were cabins with screened in porches and there was fishing and swimming and all the fun stuff you are supposed to have and do on a vacation. But the only part of the week I remember at all well was sleeping outside by the lake one perfectly clear night and looking at the stars. I think I had never looked at stars before. When you are young you don’t get outside much after dark and when you do you are generally playing hide and seek or something that keeps your eyes focused on the things around you. That night, looking up at what seemed like a million stars, was one of those formative moments for me. I got a lifelong love of stars and astronomy and science, but more importantly I first began to realize how big the creation is. I had never felt emotionally what infinity means; and if anything the universe has only gotten infinitier as I have gotten older.

People in ancient times got that sense of the bigness of things very early on in those days before light pollution hid the night sky from us. It is no wonder that astronomy was one of the first sciences to begin. But astronomy grew up for practical reasons, not just from being in awe of the sky; it grew up because they needed a good calendar. Their lives depended on the flooding of their river – it was the Euphrates in Babylon and the Nile in Egypt. They didn’t get rain and snow, weather patterns like we get. They depended on the floods to fertilize and irrigate their fields, and the floods depended on the weather in some other part of the world entirely. The cause of the annual flood was mysterious, but they soon noticed that the stars lined up with the floods.

So the story of the wise men really begins in Genesis 1:14, And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years.” The stars were given as signs, and the Babylonians became the first experts at reading them. It was the beginning of what we call science. Science is just the expertise we have developed at reading the signs in nature that God has given mankind to help us find our way. And one of the first major scientific discoveries was the calendar. It didn’t take long before this great technological marvel of the calendar spread throughout the ancient world and it all came from the Babylonians paying very very careful attention to the stars. The wise men who came looking for Jesus were essentially scientists, from a two or three thousand year tradition of science in one of the more scientifically advanced nations on earth. Scientists of the present day are their intellectual descendants and study the signs and patterns in the sky and in all of nature just as they did, though with more sophistication.

God gave the stars specifically as signs to all mankind – but not to Israel. The Israelites were the only people in the ancient middle east who did not use the stars for their calendar. The calendar of Israel came from God Himself and He told them to use the moon to date everything. The year was measured by months, from one new moon to the next. It was at best a poor calendar. The months do not come out even in the year. There are twelve and a pesky fraction of months in a year. We have to add a leap day every four years because the days of the year don’t come out even either, but the Israelites had to add aleap month” to get their new year back to its rightful time, near the beginning of barley planting season. God had given them an agricultural calendar rather than an astronomical one. For us it would be as if we scheduled the new year to begin on the first new moon after the snow melted. It would be like dating the new year the way we date Easter, and you know how changeable that is.

So why would God give them such a poorly designed calendar when all around them their neighbors had good calendars that were marvels of accuracy? It turns out that He didn’t want them to look at the stars. The problem was that the people who did look to the stars for signs soon began to worship them as gods. They worshiped the stars and the moon and the sun, but God kept the Israelites’ eyes focused on what was going on around them, the cycles of planting and harvest. He wanted them to direct their lives by trusting Him, not the stars, so He gave them a calendar that did not work too well. It was not that the stars were bad, or that science was bad; the problem was that they had not learned to keep things in perspective. “Oh, this calendar works great. The stars make it work. The stars must be gods.” We still tend to worship what works.

God kept His people from learning to read the signs He had given to the rest of the world. And that is why it was these astrologers from the east who saw the star and followed it. The wise men came from at least seven hundred miles away, probably from near the Babylon. They saw the star from seven hundred miles and the shepherds just out in the field down the road didn’t see it? Really? The scribes in Jerusalem a few miles away didn’t see it? Seriously? Of course they saw the star, but it didn’t mean anything to them. They didn’t care about stars. The star that announced the birth of the Son of God announced it to the world, not to Israel.

When God announced the coming of the Messiah to His own people He used a totally different form of social media, using the particular signs He had given to Israel. First, He announced it through the prophets. When the wise men got there, the scribes told them all they needed to know to narrow their search, because it was all right there in the prophets. And the shepherds out abiding in their fields probably thought the star was a nuisance, interrupting their sleep and confusing their sheep. What got their attention were the angels. The prophets, the angels – these were signs an Israelite could understand.

God gave science – the stars and the rest of nature – to the whole earth to be signs to us all of how to order our lives wisely, and we have read those signs very well. We have learned how to recognize selenium deficiency in the soil, and what selenium is, and how to move around very fast and build big things and measure the world. If you have learned the right perspective of the Spirit, that we should not worship the work of our own hands, then you should not despise science or any of the signs He has put into the world around us for our help. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork(Psalm 19:1) and they still do. Science is as valuable today for declaring the glory of God as it ever was in the days of the wise men looking for Bethlehem. It is only a danger to those who worship it.

But the people of God have other signs as well, signs that unbelievers cannot interpret but that will lead us to Bethlehem, by a more direct route. When God took us for His own people, He gave us other signs for our direction. He gave us Himself, He gave us His word. There are Moses and the Prophets in written form, there was Jesus coming in the flesh, and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and consciences.

I am using the different kinds of signs, the star and the angels, to represent science and faith. And just as I don’t see any conflict between following the star and following the angels, I do not see any conflict between science and faith. I love them both. Let each one follow the signs that he can see and understand. The wise men could never have seen those angels that came to the shepherds (scientists typically can still not see them), and the shepherds could never care about some strange star (just as most people of faith cannot grasp physics). But both of them, the wise men and the shepherds, followed the light they had to the one necessary place. Let not the one despise the other.

The science of this world, works marvelously well, giving us a depth of vision into the creation and a power over it that was inconceivable even a few decades ago. The science of this world gives us both a calendar to plan our year and a compass when we are lost in the woods. The angels and other signs of faith do not tell us such things. The angels give us a calendar that goes from life to death and back to life, and a moral compass to live by. The star of science tells us when our soil is selenium deficient and what selenium is; the angel of faith tells us when our souls are compassion deficient and what compassion is. Faith was not given to show us how to get to the north pole, and science was not given to teach us right and wrong.

We make a mistake when we pits the signs against each other. On the one hand, we may wrongly think that our signs are less important than the world’s signs, that the angels aren’t as reliable as the star. It is what we do when we try to find some scientific way this or that miracle could have happened, explain the feeding of the 5000, or the Resurrection, or speaking in tongues. That’s what we do so often in sermons about the wise men, trying to figure out which star it was they followed or what combination of astronomical events led them to Bethlehem. I know a little about stars now and I can tell you plainly, none of the stars in astronomy classes are what they saw. What they saw in the sky does not matter. Where it led them matters a great deal.

Or we may wrongly think that their signs don’t count, that the star is not as reliable as the angels. That is what we do when we ridicule the theory of evolution or poke fun at scientific studies we don’t understand. Remember, the children of this age are wiser in their own generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8). Mocking the signs God has given to the world only makes the people of this world less willing to follow them to Bethlehem. We would do better to not talk about what we do not understand and for the most part we do not understand the stars.

God does not give signs so that we can look at them. He gives us signs to point us to what we ought to look at. Don’t get all tangled up trying to decode the book of Revelation and end times prophecies and whether or not the rapture will happen. The point of all the signs, be it star or angels, is to get us to Bethlehem. Signs don’t matter. It is where they point that matters, If they do not make you listen more closely to God then you have seriously misunderstood them. He has always and only wanted one thing, that we should know Him, that we should go to Bethlehem. From Genesis 1:14 on, whether in science or in faith, everything He has done is to get close to us. So be a wise man today and follow that star. Or be a good shepherd and follow the angels. Just get going.

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6 Comments on “The Star vs. the Angels, a sermon on Matthew 2:1-12”

  1. Wise and wonderful – thank you for sharing this.

  2. I agree that there is no conflict in principle between faith and science. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on J.C. Sanford’s book, “Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome.” Essential reading, in my opinion.
    – Blessings to you.

  3. godanalytics Says:

    Hi Carroll! Glad to see you are still writing! I JUST wrote in a post for school that one of my shortcomings is waiting for a sign before I take action. Couldn’t sleep because of a bad cough and came across your post on signs. Maybe this is a sign?? That it isn’t the sign in itself where I’ve gone wrong but the worship of the sign… the ordering of my life around a sign. Refreshing to get “pointed in the right direction.” Would love to hear how you are doing. Will check out more here. Anna K.

    • Hello, it is good to hear from you! The last I heard you were looking to visit various churches near you. How did that go? And how are all your kids, and your music ministry, etc. You can email, of course, rather than use the comments. As for me, I hope to retire from teaching at the end of this school year, and I am still working on finishing up the book on Galatians. Kathryn is still tending her little flock at the Episcopal church, and our youngest daughter has moved out and is a college freshman. Things are quiet and we are really enjoying it. I wish all the best for you.

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