“The Star That Science Doesn’t Know”

January 9, 2011


Matthew 2: 1-12


According to the church calendar, the observance of Christmas lasts for twelve days: beyond the sales on December 26th, beyond New Year’s Day, beyond the Bowl Games. For those not too worn out and weary, the festivity continues to Epiphany on January 6—a day that marks the revelation of Christ to the world and recalls the magi finding Jesus in Bethlehem.

Since we in the Congregational tradition are not slaves to the church calendar, around here we usually mark Epiphany on a nearby Sunday. And this year we have let our Christmas celebrations overflow to January 9.

We find room in our hearts and our worship for a few carols that we haven’t heard or sung to the point of exhaustion.

And once again we hear the familiar story of those ancient astrologers who arrive in Jerusalem.

They come with gifts. And they come with a question.

They come asking, “Where?” They are as puzzled as you and I.

As ancient as these astrologers are, in one way they belong to our age. Our time—like all times—is an age of uncertainty. We go into each year—each day really—not knowing,

            feeling our way along,


                                    asking, “Where?”

Where in the world is God? Where in this world is God?

Where is God in my suffering—and in the suffering of the world?

Where is God in my praying?

Where is God in all the days and nights of my life?

The magi come with a question and they come guided by a star—of all things. A star isn’t much to go on; such a little light in so vast a darkness. Søren Kierkegaard suggested that the magi had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey.

Rumor. A star.

Sometimes that’s all we have.

And sometimes, that’s enough.

A thirsty man will walk miles in the hope of finding a well. A hungry woman will travel days for food. So those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who long to know God’s love, will set out on a journey if it seems like there’s at least a reasonable chance to find what is sought.

People in Matthew’s age—near the end of the first century—would not have found the claim that a star rose to announce the birth of a ruler all that incredible. People far and wide accepted the common notion that heavenly signs marked the births and deaths of great people.

Ever since those astrologers set out on that journey to Bethlehem, people have been seeking that star.

The seventeenth century astronomer Johannes Kepler suggested it was a supernova or “new star” that heralded the birth of Jesus. An explosion in a faint or very distant star can give out a great deal of light for a few weeks or months, sometimes to the point of being visible even in the daytime. And a supernova can be brighter than the moon. There is, however, no record of a nova or supernova just before the time of Jesus’ birth.

Since the time of Kepler there have been many other careful astronomical studies of celestial phenomena around the time of Jesus’ birth (which is in itself difficult to date, but was almost certainly not December 25 in the year 0).

People have suggested a comet or, most likely, a planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.

As I was reflecting on astronomy and the star, I stumbled across the words of Henry David Thoreau: “It is the stars not known to science that I would know, the stars which the lonely traveler knows.” As is often the case, Thoreau helps us on our journey.

He turns our attention away from supernovas and comets toward the star that science doesn’t know, toward a light that might guide our travels through life.

But how do we come to know such a star?

It is more difficult now than in years past to see any stars. “Light pollution” brightens our nighttime skies here in Iowa City and even in rural Iowa it masks the light of countless stars. When we seek out the remaining places of deep darkness, the stars can be seen more clearly.

If we would seek the light of God, we will find it shining brightest in the darkest places as well.

If we would find God’s fulfillment, we should look at those places where people are hungry and needy, working together with them, giving rather than hoarding our own resources.

If we would find God’s peace in the turmoil of our lives and the chaos of our world, we must look in the places where violence and warfare are the preferred option.

If we would know God’s wholeness, God’s salvation, in our grief and illness, indeed in our sin, we do well to look for it in places of brokenness.

And if we would know the life of God, let us look for it not only in manger where Jesus is born, not only in the house where he is found by the magi with their gifts—but let us also look at the cross, where we discover Jesus, as the carol puts it, “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying.”

The light of God—the star not known to science—can still be seen in places of darkness. The light of God is still there for us to follow if we will.

The star of Bethlehem is a star that science doesn’t know. It is the light of God shining in the darkest places, waiting always to be seen anew by our own eyes.

The star announces a birth that shakes us from dull apathy and calls us to life.

The star challenges our complacency, our passivity, our expectation that everything will pretty much continue on the way that it has been.

The star raises more questions than answers. The simple truth that is being held out here is that at its richest the Christian life is not so much a life lived as though all the answers were given, but a life lived as though all our answers are only gateways into deeper levels of answering—which in turn give way to bended knee and adoration and praise. The Christian life begins in wonder and ends in worship, which in a sense is an even more profound sense of wonder.

This morning I'm left with more questions than answers—so help me.

What is the star that rises in the heaven of your heart and leads you?

Is there a star that gives you reason to hope? Reason to love?

What gets your heart beating—enough that you'd pack up your camel and head out? Is there some beauty, some goodness, some truth that you seek, that you want to bring into the world? What gift do you have that you want to offer? What gift do you have that the world is waiting to receive?

What gets the heart of this congregation beating? What new mission shines brightly for us to follow? What do we hope for—and what do we fear?

The light of God is still there for us to follow if we will.

Howard Thurman put it well in his poem:


When the song of the angels is stilled,

when the star in the sky is gone,

when the shepherd and the magi have found their way home,

the work of Christmas is begun:

Find the lost

Heal the broken

Feed the hungry

Release the prisoners

Rebuild the nations

Bring peace among brothers and sisters

Make music in the heart


Most of the work of Christmas happens beyond these four walls: in homes and neighborhoods, in offices, stores, and classrooms; in daily efforts to do what is right, to live with purpose, to follow where Jesus leads. Out in the world is where we will encounter the lost, the hungry, the broken. We are called to ministry beyond these walls. As soon as we forget this and turn our gaze inward we are in danger of losing sight of our calling as a church.

And we are helped in this task of looking outward by the story of the star that we heard once again this morning.

If we look, we might discover the truth with which Bach’s Christmas Oratorio concludes in its final chorale for Epiphany: “Christ has broken that which was against you. Death, devil, sin and hell are quite diminished, the human race has its place at God’s side.”

A new star shines brightly. This is the good news that shall carry us through another year: Each one of us, yes, each one of us and the entire human race has its place at God’s side.