The stars in constellations are thousands of light years apart (well, some of them are). And some of these stars may even no longer exist. They are so far away that if they blew up, we wouldn’t know about it for a thousand years.
But because we are where we are, when we are, together they look like a cup. Or like a bull. Or a guy wearing a belt. They make sense to us, and may even help point us home if we were lost.
Orion is one of the best examples of what I’m talking about here.
Betelgeuse, the bright red star that is Orion’s left shoulder, it is about 640 light years from earth. Bellatrix, though, the other shoulder star, is only 200 light years from earth, three times closer. Mintaka, the rightmost star in the belt, is 1200 light years away from the earth. If you look at it tonight, the light that hits your retina left the star around 600 AD.
Orion only looks like a guy wearing a belt because we are, where we are, when we are. If we lived in a different part of the universe, he wouldn’t look like much of anything.
Constellations have helped people for a long time find their way home.
We are talking about constellations during Advent, the time of year when we remember the promised birth of Jesus, because there is a star that plays a prominent role in the Christmas story. It will help some people find their way home, find their way to Jesus. But it’s not at all what they think it is.
The 88 constellations in the sky have all remained constant throughout earth’s history. They’re dependable. Those stars are always where they should be.
But there are a few other lights in the sky that aren’t so constant. They wander around.
Until around 500 years ago, those stars made people really nervous.
They called them wandering stars. They are brighter than the other stars. And because they were so strange, a whole system of belief arose because of them.
That system of belief is called astrology.
If you’ve ever read a horoscope, you can thank those wandering stars. And if you’ve ever believed a horoscope, well, I’ve got a bridge you might be interested in buying. I’ll give you a great deal on it.
Astrology came to be because until around 500 years ago, we didn’t know that those wandering stars were actually other planets that were also in rotation around the Sun, just like our planet is. Because of that, the paths they follow in the sky seem erratic. They go back and forth. They cross in front of other stars and in front of each other. If we didn’t know now why they do that, we’d be justified in ascribing special meaning to it.
It’s a little crazy to me that people still do think that the motion of the other planets in our solar system affects life here on earth, but before we knew they were planets, it made a bit more sense.
Today, we’re going to look at the Wise Men who followed signs in the heavens to come and meet Jesus. We’re supposed to talk about them after Christmas, but this year, we’re starting with them.
Because what they really might have been, were astrologers. They might have been people who watched the movement of the planets while thinking they were wandering stars, and so ascribed great meaning to what they did.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
There’s a theory that shares the idea that the star of Bethlehem that Matthew wrote about in his gospel, the star that led the three Wiseman to Jesus wasn’t actually a star or a comet but was the planet Jupiter.
It shares that there were nine qualities of Bethlehem’s Star: It signified birth, kingship, was related to the Jewish nation, and it rose “in the East”; King Herod had not been aware of it; it appeared at an exact time; it endured over time; and, it was in front of the Magi when they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and then it stopped over Bethlehem.
There’s actually software that can tell you what you could see in the night sky from just about any location in earth’s history. And a few astronomers found that Jupiter did some unique things between 3 and 2 BC that fits nicely with these nine qualities of the star of Bethlehem.
Highlights include a triple conjunction of Jupiter, called the king planet, with the star Regulus, called the king star, starting in September of 3 BC. That they may have interpreted as the time of Jesus’ conception.
By June of 2 BC, nine months later, Jupiter had continued moving in its orbit around the sun and appeared in close conjunction with Venus in June of 2 BC. In Hebrew Jupiter is called “Sedeq”, meaning “righteousness”, a term also used for the Messiah, and suggested that because the planet Venus represents love and fertility, so astrologers would have viewed the close conjunction of Jupiter and Venus as indicating a coming new king of Israel.
Jupiter continued to move and then it stopped in its apparent retrograde motion on December 25 of 2 BC over the town of Bethlehem. Since planets in their orbits have a “stationary point”, a planet moves eastward through the stars but “After it passes the opposite point in the sky from the sun, it appears to slow, come to a full stop, and move backward (westward) for some weeks. Again it slows, stops, and resumes its eastward course. The date of December 25 that Jupiter appeared to stop while in retrograde took place in the season of Hanukkah, and is the date later chosen to celebrate Christmas. (Source here)
It’s a cool theory. It’s very plausible to me that ancient astorologers would have seen that exact thing, which we know did happen, and come to those conclusion.
And here’s why that matters! And why it should matter to you, and why I’m telling you about it.
The wise men didn’t know what they were looking at.
They ascribed meaning to the movement of Jupiter because they didn’t know what Jupiter really was.
The wise men didn’t know what they were looking at… but God used it in their lives any way.
God spoke to them in a way they could hear.
The magi went on a quest to the other part of the world because they believed the stars were writing history in the sky. And even though we can say with certainty that they were absolutely wrong about what Jupiter is…
…God used it anyway.
God used something they thought was one thing to introduce them to something else, his son.
God used something that wasn’t strictly true to point to someone who IS. The kind of truth you don’t know, or memorize or think about. But meet, sit with, bask in the presence of, bring gifts and ultimately your self, to.
God used the stars and planets they were watching for answers to guide them to the one who had the answers we are all looking for.
Here’s what this tells us:
There is no wrong way to come to Jesus.
Whether you are following a planet you think is a star, or stumbling toward Jesus on a series of questions and doubts, there is no wrong way to come to Jesus.
Because once you do, all things you were wrong about, and all the things you were right about, just don’t matter any more. You can set them both aside, because you’ve found something, someone, so much better.
It’s not about the star or the constellation. It’s about who they point to.
We all come to Jesus in different ways, we all have different constellations we are following to get there, but all that matters in the end is where we end up.
One of the things in your constellation might be like this astrological thing was for the wise men. You might find out years later that it wasn’t what you thought it was. But that doesn’t make the God it lead you to any less real.
Maybe one of the stars and your constellation turned out to be a person who wasn’t all that great in the end, or failed everyone greatly. And yet that person’s presence in your life nudged you in the right direction.
Or maybe one of your stars was an -ism that turned out to be a hoax or a trick. You held onto a belief or a perspective for years and then as you realized you were wrong you came closer to Jesus.
Some times, one of those stars in your constellation is suffering and hurt. God uses bad things to bring about good things all the time. We need to never call bad good. The ends never justify the means. But God is so good, that he can make do with whatever broken pieces we give him. That doesn’t make it okay, just because it brought you to God. But it does illustrate the key feature of what we celebrate in Christmas. Redemption.
God comes to us in forms that we can understand. He spoke to the Magi through their belief that Jupiter was a star. And God will speak the you, too.
We’re all here today because other people have formed a constellation for us. Some of the brightest stars might be our parents, or best friends. Or they might be painful experiences, or miracles. Some of the dimmer stars might be people we met just once. But together, all of these people form a constellation that brought us to God.
In a similar way, we all make up constellations in other people’s lives. We may or may not know, or even ever meet, the other people in the constellation with us. But to the one who is looking, because of who and when and where they are, the constellation we’re in could help lead them home.
Just like Jupiter didn’t need to be a star to lead them to Jesus that night, we don’t have to be perfect to help point other people to Jesus either. With all of our mistakes and problems, God uses us to help point other people home.
About the Author
David Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find him on Twitter @davidrcollins