Sun, Jan 06, 2019

Shining fresh light

Sermon for Epiphany

Miraculous stories in the Bible––

what do we do with them?


There have been many attempts over the years to try to explain the inexplicable.

Some explanations are quite simply framed and plausible…

drawing on our knowledge of science or medicine or anthropology.

Thus, when Jesus is said to have raised Jairus’ daughter…

some have suggested that she wasn’t really dead––

that he simply woke her from a coma;

or, when Jesus is said to heal a leper… 

what people, back then, understood by the term “leper”––

and even what they understood by the word “heal”––

is different from how we understand it.

Some explanations, on the other hand, are fanciful and…


defy logic as much as the apparent “plain sense reading”.

Thus, one American oceanographer has claimed that Jesus’ walking on water…

can be explained as a “rare combination of…water and conditions” on the Sea of Galilee––

specifically, that “a brief blast of frigid air combined with generally cooler weather…

resulted in a unique, localized freezing phenomenon”.

In other words, Jesus appeared to be walking on the water when–– 

in reality–– 

he was actually walking on a patch of ice floating on the Sea of Galilee.


Part of the problem stems from the Biblical stories themselves.

Many attempts to explain them––

especially those of the more fanciful variety––

do so because they assume an underlying historicity.

They assume that the events described actuallyhappened in real life.

But that’s not an assumption that we should necessarily make.

Not only did the authors of the New Testament have a very different understanding of what constitutes “history”––

for example, in ancient history it was expected that the author would, himself, compose speeches…

according to what he thought would have been said on such an occasion––

but it’s not clear that they even intended to write “history”.

They were, first and foremost, writing “theology”––

they were trying to convey something of their grasp of the meaning and significance of Jesus…

and they crafted their stories to that end.

They were also trying to persuade people to believe certain things…

and to act according to those beliefs.

Thus, the stories are closer to fables or morality tales––

even modern-day sermons––

rather than history as such.

Consequently, trying to explain stories or elements that did not, in reality, happen––

but were written to make a particular theological point––

is almost an absurdity.

And, of course, nowhere is this more pertinent than in the stories of Jesus’ birth.

These stories were composed long after the event.

They are contradictory.

And they are driven largely––

if not solely––

by political-theological agendas.

In reading these stories we should not be looking for historical justifications and explanations…

but trying to unravel the symbolic clues…

as to how the stories would have been heard by their original, intended audiences.

So, when I came across an article entitled… 

“Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?”…

I really only read it thinking of some foil with which to start my sermon for Epiphany.

Apart from the fact that Jesus was born––

possibly in Bethlehem…

during the reign of Herod the Great––

and that it took place in an ordinary house…

there is nothing in Matthew’s story that is “historical” in the true sense.

Certainly, the author of the article––

a Professor of Astronomy from Vanderbilt University––

assumed otherwise.

But what makes his article interesting and insightful…

is how his explanation helps us to understand the story from the perspective of a first century hearer––

regardless of the historicity of the events described.

He admits that the description of the star’s activity––

“rising” and “moving” and “guiding”––

doesn’t make sense astronomically.

But he notes that the language that the story’s author chooses is quite deliberate––

and it’s drawn from ancient Greek astrology.

Thus, although stars don’t move in the sky, planets do—

because of the different speed with which they rotate around the sun.

Thus, the expression “at its rising”––

or, badly translated in some versions as “in the East”––

refers to a planet reappearing in the morning sky…

having been hidden behind the sun for some months;

and, for ancient Greek astrologers, the reappearance of a planet––

especially the planet Jupiter––

was thought to be symbolically significant for anyone born that day.

Indeed, our astronomy professor claims that this story describes a rare combination of astrological phenomena:

the “rising” of Jupiter with the sun being in the right constellation of the zodiac…

which would have suggested to ancient Greek astrologers that a royal birth had taken place.


That’s interesting, I hear you say, but so what?
What difference does that make?


Well, what’s really interesting in this is that the author of Matthew’s Gospel––

widely recognised as the most Hebrew of the Gospel writers––

draws directly and unambiguously on the language and precepts of ancient Greek astrology.

And yet, if we look at the Old Testament…

the attitude to astrology that we find there is, at best, ambivalent…

if not overtly hostile.

The author of Matthew’s Gospel, then… 

deliberately and intentionally employed astrological language and concepts.

In so doing, clearly, he was seeking to engage and communicate with non-Hebrews.

He expected them to comprehend the significance of what he was describing.

But it’s not just that he was borrowing their language and concepts…

in some sleazy, evangelistic sort of way.

He was borrowing the language and concepts of a spiritual or religious tradition…

vastly different from, and seemingly at odds with, his own…

and saying that God was working through that.

That, in a sense, is what’s so wonderfully radical…

and shocking…

about this explanation.

The author of Mathew’s Gospel is suggesting that God communicates––

that God reveals God’s self––

through different spiritual and religious traditions…

even ones that appear at odds with the dominant or accepted one.

Indeed, in the story, the only people who recognise the starry symbolic clues…

are people belonging to a foreign…


despicable religion––

the Magi were, after all, Zoroastrian priests.


In other words, the author is suggesting that God’s revelation is not restricted to the Hebrew tradition…

nor, by extension, even the Christian tradition.

People of other faiths and other religious traditions…

may be able to discern truths about God that we cannot.

Perhaps, then, that is the message of Epiphany:

that God’s light shines upon us in different ways, through different means;

that God is bigger and beyond all that we can imagine;

and that God is bigger and beyond each of our finite religious traditions––

no matter how God-ordained we might believe them to be.

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