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Oh That Christmas Story

by Ian Robinson

Just hang on a minute! It is hardly the beginning of advent and already I’m dripping with lies.

Forget the context, just pile up the colourful myths – the unwelcome couple, the child born in abject poverty, the cold shepherds, kindly sheep, lowing cattle, all in the thatched little stable “out the back”.

Turn off the tap of waffle about the stable scene. Those ripping yarns for the unsuspecting visitors in overheated Christmas services are in serious need of re-imagining.

Probably most of it is not true.

Firstly, the bible story doesn’t say they were unwelcome, just that there was no room. You had to be there for the census if you wanted your patrimony to stay on record. Proof of identity and lineage was a big issue in the first century, just read Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

We know almost nothing from outside scripture about this census, how or when it was to be conducted. It may have taken years, region by region, but the story suggests that this was done on Jewish patrilineal lines (2.4), not on a street by street basis. So, at a few key centres, there was going to be widespread convergence of people (Lk 2.1-2). And with no fax or email booking system, you set out on your journey and hoped for the best, and were probably blessed with adaptability. Mary and Joseph may have been welcomed to Bethlehem like the long lost cousins that they were, but there was still no room. Forget the “unwelcome” tag, there is no evidence for it.

Secondly, the “inn” of those times were normally built in a walled courtyard arrangement, today called a ‘khan’. Not a motel or hotel with lots of rooms for each guest. Caravan animals were bedded down inside the courtyard, not farmyard animals. So camels and donkeys, yes, not cows goats sheep or horses. Few people slept in rooms, only the very wealthy, and most were under the verandahs, to keep an eye on their goods and animals. In Luke 2, it says, this whole menagerie was full at the time they needed to give birth ( 2.7).

They may have camped there in the courtyard for a long time before the crucial moment came. We don’t know how long they had been in Bethlehem before the child’s time came. If the call to census came at month six, for instance, and they travelled at month seven, they would probably have had to wait in Bethlehem until after delivery. Until then, they probably camped out, as pilgrims did near Jerusalem during festivals there. We are making it all up beyond that.

And when you made plans to deliver, would you want to be camping out or would you look for some place a little more out of the weather? Better to find a cleaner place where a midwife can attend. Tradition says they found a cave on the edge of Bethlehem( Lk 2. 15), and Joseph presumably found or made the manger. It may not have been a sign of their poverty – it might have been what everybody did – lots of cultures in the world don’t make nursery furniture. They might have used straw, but the story actually mentions cloth ( 2.12). If it was a sheepfold cave, of the type still evident around Bethlehem, the sheep were not in it. The story says they were out in the fields (2. 8). You can’t have it both ways– the sheep at the manger softly crooning, and the sheep in the fields getting amazed! To preach otherwise is either distortion or contortion, but not real.

Thirdly, the Magi see a child in a house (Matt 2.11), not a baby in a manger. The shepherds are long gone, the baby is now a toddler. We don’t know why they stayed in Bethlehem so long, why travel may have been prevented, or why they may have preferred to stay there. Presumably, Joseph has employment. The magi had told King Herod how long its been since they saw his birth-star, and Herod despatches a squad of soldiers to kill all males under two years old. There’s the confirming clue on how long it has been since the shepherds visited – just under two years. The orthodox churches are right to separate Christmas and epiphany. And there were three kinds of gift – gold, frankincense and myrrh – no clue as to how many gifts or how many magi. Next time the Sunday Club has a few spare children for the nativity scene, throw in six more magi!

Maybe there is a place for helping people to imagine the story, and for adding new twists or points of view (the local cat, a wandering mouse, the baby donkey ). But they have as much connection to the actual events as The Da Vinci Code. Jesus (Yeshua – Saviour) was really born – blood, mucus, pain, danger, poo, vomit – and by this we are really saved. That other Christmas of wild waffle is a fable, and so too is its salvation.

People deserve a real gospel that can be lived out in the real world. Imagine that!

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A Liturgy for Easter Sunday

Four readers, one prayer, one 5 min sermon, 7 songs, leader. Everything white.

prepared by Ian Robinson

Leader: “Christ is Risen”

Response: “He is Risen indeed”

READING 1. IT IS SUNRISE Mark 16.1-8

Leader: These women came to the first Easter Sunday morning filled with disappointment in their lives. All they have left to work for is to carry out a decent burial.

On this Easter morning, are you pre-occupied with disappointment? Is this the best you can do with your life – to keep a decent, respectable life? You could do worse, but the promise of Easter is that you can actually have God’s purpose working in your life.

You can be holy. The Risen Christ has a new beginning for you. It’s no wonder the women’s first thought was how scary it could be.

READING 2. THE TOMB IS EMPTY Luke 24.1-12

Leader: At this stage of events, they are only afraid. They are afraid of two things.

One is that their enemies have stopped at nothing to suppress Jesus’ movement. They are afraid they will be the next to be arrested, flogged and crucified. At least two of them leave town immediately. Jesus had to catch up with them in a town called Emmaus.

Maybe they are also afraid that Jesus might actually have risen from the dead, as they heard the angels say. It is such a shining hope, so much would then be different, and that alone would be very scary. No wonder the Risen Jesus kept greeting them with: ‘peace be with you’.

Remember the goodness of God. Remember the kindness of Jesus. He has never brought harm to anyone who placed their trust in him. Peace be with you.

READING 3. JESUS APPEARS Luke 24.36-44

Leader: There he is in the flesh. It changes everything. There are huge possibilities that open up now. Walking with Jesus in freedom from sin. A new life, a new vision. Forgiveness and love both given and received. Finding self in serving others. Making peace with justice. Integrity and generosity that counts for all eternity. Personal communion with a living God. What richness he has lavished on us in Jesus Christ!

SERMON

To be honest, Easter is not all about huge possibilities that open up. There are also some possibilities that it closes down.

If you like to be the victim, the tragic, the hero, the bitter fighter, then with the resurrection of Jesus your whole life is shattered. With Jesus leading us beyond death, we need no longer get so bitter about death and suffering.

Again, if you like to accumulate experiences, accumulate money and securities, live on overdrive, fly off on sex or drugs, then the new life of Jesus has shown up your emptiness. With an eternity to live, we need no longer rush to fit in every good thing we can get.

Again, if your focus is ‘me’, what about me, what’s in it for me, what I want, where I’m going, do it my way, the empty tomb shows how fearful we really are to be embraced by life. We are no longer our own – we have been bought with a price and held beyond death! To live the new life we have to stop reinforcing the defences of the present one.

Yes, there is some bad news for some. But I find that it’s good news, the happiest news of all time. I know I haven’t got it all sorted, but as I walk the road with Jesus, the light from the empty tomb is just simply fantastic, worth living for, and worth dying for.

Amen

Prayer 1

Because you have saved us so openly and so strongly,

We are confident to bring to you

all our disappointments.

We bring to you our narrow thinking.

May your Kingdom-purposes be seen in us.

Because you have loved us so completely,

We can bring to you our fears and pain.

We bring our doubt- that you might give us less than the best.

We welcome the New Life

That you have pioneered for us.

Because you have conquered death,

We can put aside the fear of suffering,

and the bitter sting of death.

Gently, please, take apart our inner defences, and set us free.

Open up new spaces inside our hearts,

Space for being loved, being safe,

being clean, being true, and

spaces for integrity, generosity, kindness, and peace.

READING 4. JESUS SAYS ‘HANG ON A SEC’ Luke 24.45-53

Leader: The power to live the New Life does not come just by wanting it, choosing it, training it, being born with it, or seeing it in someone else. The power comes through the Holy Spirit, whom we must welcome into our life.

BENEDICTION

Because you walk with us, Jesus,

and show us freedom from failure,

We can give and receive

both forgiveness and love.

We can find ourselves in serving others.

We can make peace with justice.

We can know, more deep than breathing,

this personal connection with the living God.

Oh, the riches of the love

which you have lavished on us in Jesus Christ!

So, shock us into life!

Nurture us into love!

And impel us with your grace

To share again and again, in myriad ways,

That vast good news: Christ is Risen!

He is risen indeed!

Hallelujah! Amen.

NAMELESS GREEKS and A NEW COVENANT

By Ian Robinson

Readings:

Jer 31.31-34

Heb 5.5-10

Jn 12.20-33

Who were these nameless Greeks who made Jesus swoon so? They were visitors in Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover, milling and shoving in the crowds, whistling at the stories of capital city politics, doing what they’re told by all the police – the build up of excitement is palpable, but they come around the corner and go first to Philip and ask to see Jesus.

For Jesus, it is as though the clock started to strike twelve. The booming voice from the sky confirms it. “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”(v 23).

What Jesus sees happening had been coming for a long time. This moment has always been in God’s plan.

Since the void was shattered by the explosive migth of God’s “let their be light”, 13.7 billion years of creation has been heading towards this moment. Since humans emerged and decided immediately to take all God’s gifts and rebel thanklessly against God’s promises and hide from God’s presence, 100 thousand migrations had seen the plan progressing.

Since an old Aramaean opened his mind to hear God afresh and heard a promise that through him ‘all the nations of the earth would be blessed’, two thousand years of promise had been building in the minds of men and women.

Since Moses ducked the lightning on Mt Sinai and heard the words and since he wept with God for the people’s fickle fast stupid callous brazen rebelliousness, the word of the Old Covenant has been repeated and translated.

The prophet Jeremiah was caught in the act of upsetting all the religious people who thought they had God sown up in their church. But God lamented their attitude with an unfathomable personal pain: ‘I was your husband’, God said – you were my bride and and you betrayed me!…..I was your husband! – (Chapt 31.31-34)

Jesus sees the promise, 700 years out of Jeremiah, emerging from around a corner. God will give a new covenant not like the old – because our hearts are so hard. No longer trapped in our ethnic box or our religious box – a covenant for all the world to know and a covenant of full and free forgiveness. Its about what’s in our hearts not what’s in our heads. It’s about where we’re going, not how good we are.

People can believe in God so clearly and ever so cleverly but not ever tasted God within. People can cling to church, or cling to their rejection of church, when Jeremiah says that that is exactly what they should be letting go of.

With the one mind you have to think with, with the one frail beating heart you have to live by, with the only pair of hands you have to hold on to what really matters – hang on to the new covenant, and not the old ways.

Jesus sees that the fierce grief-struck the jilted God, the cheated husband of the Bride, is now about to become a happy man again. Jesus is just SO happy to see these Greeks. It’s not because he likes souvlaki, or balalaika, or good old Greek smart-thinking. He had no relatives in Athens or Melbourne. …

Jesus can hear the New Covenant stepping closer. It’s here now for we Christians, but at the time it was just coming in. The New Covenant within the heart – is what makes us love God, listen to God, obey and serve, seek and find.

The Spirit is ours who makes us to taste and see, argue and cherish, repent and be cleansed.

Healing is ours for bitter memories, torn souls, jumpy egos, veils of shame, and even sometimes for sick bodies.

Salvation is ours that softens our hearts, opens our minds, swells our hearts in worship, stills our fear in trouble, draws us up to face the moments of accountability.

Jesus can see it. At that moment Jesus says what he sees: “Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up, + will draw all people = to myself.” ( v 31-32) And these Greeks are the first instalment of this worldwide explosion of love.

It’s happening. So now the other part – the ‘lifted up’ part – must happen to.

“ Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

He is talking about himself. He is talking about you… and me.

He knows he will be strung up to face all the evil the world has to offer – its contrived sincerity, its crushing political machinery, its brutal torture and naked mockery, abandoned by friends with a ministry that will seem still-born. On that cross he will go down every dark passage of our minds, every horror of our history, and will take on all the personal stupidity we have to offer, and embrace them, into his heart, and…. love us.

AND there is more. He knows that he will spring to new life and set us free to follow him on our path. So, my question to us all is, how are you following today?

It’s a question about where you are going rather than how you are feeling. Some of us are at a point of decision in our personal life or in our faith and church life – What do I/we have to die to at the moment? What good things can not be taken in to the future?

Be sure of this: When a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it bears much fruit.

If that question is too hard, you need to hear this one. Have you actually got the message on why the Greeks came from so far away to see Jesus? Have you seen what they saw?

It wasn’t for his good looks or to buy his books. Hebrews 5.5-10 describes Jesus in a very Jewish way. (read) It is just one of many and various descriptions of Jesus, perhaps “celebrations” of Jesus in Hebrews. What picture of Jesus does it paint?

Firstly, Jesus is no accident of history, no Jewish phenomenon, he was not self-appointed. Jesus is God-ordained and God-begotten. The “Melchizidek” idea is to say Jesus surpasses the Jewish history, and surpasses both fate and chance, because the original M. served the most high god in Abraham’s time. That’s more than a thousand years before “Jewish” hit the press, or the Da Vinci Code or Bp Jack Spong or Phillip Adams. Jesus is ordained of God for any in the whole world who seeks the most high God. Forever and for all.

That’s why the Greeks know they can come. That’s why Phillip and Andrew are only too pleased to befriend them in evangelism. Is that what our neighbours know? Is that what pleases you?

But again, the knew THAT they could come, but WHY did they come to see Jesus? The signs (miracles) point to him but that’s all they do. People seemed to open to Jesus but also close to him, on the basis of the signs.

What attracted them, motivated them, changed them?

The picture in Hebrews 5 tells us that Jesus knew how to serve God while here on earth – v 7-8. You serve God on earth don’t you, that is if you’re not dead yet – so you do this don’t you?

By what actions did Jesus serve God, according to Hebrews?

He offered up prayers. He offered up earnest prayer. Do you do that? He knew how to pray for the lost with loud cries and tears. Have you learned to do that? He agonized about his decisions and keeping in the centre of God’s will. Did you know that sweet agony was normal for us all? He went beyond thinking about what God CAN do and knew what God WILL do here and now.

And not just actions but attitudes –

He faced everything he was about to suffer and lose and risk and throw away so that the glory of God could be seen in his small simple solitary son of man life. Is that how you leave church on Sunday? He sought “reverent submission” to God, that blessed soft strong responsiveness of one human heart to the heart of God, even though he was the royal son. Are you “reverent” – is that how you listen to others and read the Bible? He learned obedience, that self-control that marches to the beat of God’s drum despite all the others around us who are calling the tune? What particular obedience have you been learning lately?

All this showed in Jesus’ life.

  • His prayer was heard.(v7). That’s where the faith miracles came from.
  • He came into his purpose (v 9a). That’s where those words resonated from.
  • He became a source – not just the receiver – of blessing. (v9b). That’s where the love flowed from. That’s what I really want in my life.

And Scripture tells us that because of that kind of “reverence”, not the churchy kind, because of that kind of “prayer”, not the wordy fleeting kind, “eternal salvation” it says has spilled everywhere, like gold from a sunset.

This man of tender healing hands and fierce loving heart is someone you could travel a long way for. This salvation, if you only saw it, is something you could gladly sell all your gold for if only to be part of spreading around eternal salvation like gold from a sunset.

This morning, do you see Jesus? Do you see the looming promise that Jesus saw, stepping explosively into your life? Is that what you want? Can you make it your heart’s desire? Pray with me.

God of the Covenant,

You came for ever and for all, the source of eternal salvation for all who come and se and learn to obey.

You have not left us to wonder

and wander around the endless streets of the worlds religions.

Though sometimes it seems the easiest way,

it leaves hearts cold.

Nor have you placed us inside the package of church.

We welcome Your New Covenant to reach below the skin,

below the traditions and structures,

below the thoughts that control and limit.

We welcome Your Spirit to reach into our very heart,

to heal and save, and to take our whole lives over,

to sell us up and move us on with joy.

We love you, Jesus.

We are here with you, Jesus.

We are on the road with you,

come what may,

learning your prayer and obedience,

learning your reverent submission,

living in your grace.

Amen.

Makes You Wonder Resources

How Jesus Failed

by Ian Robinson

Many people, some of us, even some so-called theologians , suspect that Jesus was a failure. They say, his capture and cruel death was a failure that the early followers tried to turn into something good, hence the name Good Friday. But they could not be more upside down in their thinking. In today’s Good Friday service, we will do something a bit different. We are going to listen to some of the mocking voices at Jesus. Hear what they said against Him. Two things come of this – 1. in their words maybe we will hear ourselves. 2. But there is another flow of thought in the opposite direction. In Jesus’ apparent failure, God was achieving something – something as strong as our salvation.

Mk 15.1-5 – Ian R

POLITICAL FAILURE

‘Are you the King of the Jews?’, asked Pontius Pilate. Did he really want to know, or was he hurling out one of those sick jokes that come up among soldiers? He could not see a man with an army. The joke shows Jesus holding on to no privilege or rank. His followers, all disappeared by now, are all ordinary folks and broken people. Is he going to rule the world with that lot? Pilate thinks a king would gather to himself unanswerable power, but Jesus does not really give him much of an answer. Political failure? Today, the lasting truth is that Pilate is gone and the Risen Jesus rules a billion souls. We broken souls have been the bearers of the news of real glory.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Mk 15.12-15 – Ian R

A MARKETTING FAILURE

“Crucify Him!” they shouted, all the louder. They knew what they were asking, bloody death by excruciating torture. Not a great audience response for Jesus. He has been voted off. But it was due to a kind of envy, the story says. Envy is the currency of all marketing. I sometimes think:Can the advertisers make us want what we do not need? We start to think habitually about everything and everybody: What can we get out of this? We have ulterior motives for everyone. That’s this kind of Envy. We humans want so much, we have so much, we crave for more and we hunger for things and experiences, prestige and securities – all unattainable in the work of one lifetime, unless someone else pays for us. So, in the corridors of power, we make systems and rules that make us into the winning side, we take most of the big fish and the resources. Our rules simultaneously make millions poor, that is, bring children to an early death. In a nutshell, this envy is the cause of all the sufferings. In the name of justice, someone will have to pay. To stop it all, Jesus will pay for our sins today.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Mk 15.29-32 – Ian R

A RELIGIOUS FAILURE

‘He said he would rebuild the temple in three days, ‘. They scoffed at him, ‘Ay, that’s a good one. You said you saved others, now Save yourself!’ So the mockery went as people passed the crosses along the road nearby. These people who take such supreme pride in this magnificent temple of King Herod, built under cruel taxation, were the collaborators in the spoiling of the people. Like the prophets Isaiah and Micah before him, Jesus’ faith is not about magnificent ritual. In history, we have built such regal blasphemies in God’s name. Somehow though, the accusers had heard his promises – to surpass it all. In three days Jesus did raise up a different way of life. So, for our sake, upon this Friday, upon this cross, he will not save himself. For he has pledged himself to save us. It is not the nails that hold him to the cross, it is love.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Let us consider in silence that your name and my name was before him on this very day.

Silence with instrumental music

Mk 15.33-37

AN INTIMACY FAILURE –

The last cry uttered against God this day, comes from Jesus himself. ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me. Or in his Galilean accent, words burned unforgettably in their brains, Eloi eloi lama sabachthnai’. They never heardJesus say anything remotely like that before, for he simply loved his Heavenly Dad, called him ‘abba’. But has Jesus’ intimacy with the Father failed at last? The most precious intimacy in the entire universe, is it as shredded as it sounds? Sin and darkness have taken their toll on his heart, bitterness has crowded around his exhausted mind. All our alienation from God, all our stubborn pride, all the hubris that nails terror into human souls is numbing Jesus’ spirit to death. And yet, and yet, he speaks to his father. He is not silent in his darkness. Even the bitterness he shares with Abba. This Love can carry even this pain, All the pain we get, all the pain we give. The people standing near him dont get it, they think its about Elijah or deliverance or something. Their lives roll on, ying and yang, day in day out. But the unthinkable good news from this failure at the cross is: God listens to laments, and Love wins. When our hearts are breaking, that’s how the light gets in. So, desire this Love above all else.

Refrain Response: He seems to be a failure,

yet somehow he knew

The truth about us.

Friends, we are drawing this time together to a close. Turn your mobiles to 3pm and set the alarm for the hour Jesus died. This afternoon you can recall this service and stop a moment.

We have seen in the words of torture, mockery and apparent failure the uniqueness of Jesus’ light, his love, his power, his payment for all human horrors and hubris. Now, what does it mean, the Book of Romans says, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. You and I are freed of wrath, of darkness, of selfishness, of sin, both its power and its penalty. Jesus’ victory is confirmed when we gather here on joyous Easter morning. Let us not be spectators, mouthers of words, who repeat the cruel and casual apathy of the first Good Friday. Let us make an offering of ourselves to God.

A BIT OF A STRETCH

GOOD FRIDAY 2010

by Ian Robinson

"One for all and once for all" that’s Good Friday’s theme. It’s a bit of a stretch to grasp this.

St Paul tried: "that God was pleased to reconcile himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" Colossians 1.20.

To reach out and cover the distance, to make the gap close up, God stretched all the limits. On this day, as John Witvliet wrote recently, the one called ‘Living Water’ says ‘I thirst’, the one called ‘the resurrection and the life’ actually dies, the one called ‘great high priest’ becomes himself the sacrifice, the ‘King of Kings’ is killed like a common traitor. All this is so that he ransoms us, pays our debt, conquers all the evil we will ever have to face, opens the way to the loving Father, creates a well of healing, becomes the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and we? We get the gift, the good stuff, the offer that should have you smiling like a lotto winner. And that would be a stretch.

But it is not lack of understanding that finds us struggling with it. IT is where we stand. I understand that rthere are many things that may be holding us a distance.

We might stand with those whole religious views are black and white, right and wrong, boxed up and unable or unwilling to see who they have before them. In Jesus we see a man of Spirit, in touch with God intimately, the living Word, the mystery revealed. So don’t stand there.

We might stand among those who pride themselves on being ‘realistic’, or real-politick, as the media has it. It’s a semi smart way of avoiding the value of true human being. It’s a semi cynical way to stay away from this love. In Jesus you are being loved more humanly, more divinely, more powerfully, more respectfully, more brilliantly than one mind can fully comprehend.

We might also feel plain unworthy of such a lavish love. I know it is hard t take in, but you’ve hit the jackpot. Your sins and shame are no barrier. It has all been really redeemed. The slate is really clean. This much (arms wide open on the cross) does Jesus love you, long for you and call for you.

We may not want to trust God. The world is cruel, brutish, unpredictable – how do we know that the creator is not also cruel? In Jesus we see, that’s why. The Father’s love had come to guide us back into the fullness of life and love that we were made for. You can trust God in this hurting world.

There it is. It is a stretch, I acknowledge. But that is a cross that I will gladly bear all my days

MAKES YOU WONDER RESOURCES

Do not Forget Jesus in the Desert

By Ian Robinson

Bible Readings

Mark 1.10-13

Dt 4.1-14

Psalm 62.5-8

There is a critical step in this passage which all of scripture says that we must not forget. It even says we are in deadly peril if we DO forget.

So I can’t stop here in reading Mark and go on to the next story, love it though I do. We must remember where Jesus next steps went after his triumphant baptism.

The question is this: why is Jesus soon to be found in the desert?

You would have thought that such a heavenly visitation by the river would have meant that all Jesus’ problems were over. He has the world to win and God the Father has just split the sky and shouted down his go-ahead. Now he just has to go for it, right, and everything will come his way, right? Certainly some preachers make it sound that way – come to God be filled with the Holy Spirit and everything will be at peace, right? So why is Jesus immediately to be found in the desert?

v. 12-13 JESUS IS THROWN INTO THE DESERT

It is the Holy Spirit who forces Jesus into the desert.

He is literally ‘thrown out’ ekballein. He would have walked south, further into the Arabah Desert, where St Paul was later to spend three years. This journey sounds so strange. What does it mean? Why do that?

Usually, in sermons we would turn now to the gospels of Matthew and Luke and read how Jesus underwent three major inner tests from Satan about his calling – how to carry through his mission. Mt and Lk go into the tests in detail. Intriguingly, Mark does not. There is something else here also that we need to see. It is the very big something that we must not forget.

Here it is. The desert has always, always been essential to our faith for biblical people.

We can carry forward that journey in two ways: by a journey in the desert out beyond the margins of town and farm, and secondly by returning into mainstream society to practices that preserve the desert’s lessons.

Today, let’s just leaf through some of the multitude of snapshots in the Bible about these two ways, and you will come to wonder why you have never seen it before this.

a. God shapes people in the desert beyond the margins:

Old Testament:

When God needed to form his people as his own he took them across the Reed Sea out of Egypt into the desert, for forty years. It was hard enough getting them out of Egypt, but it proved near impossible to get the Egypt out of them. They rebelled repeatedly. To prepare Moses for that job, God had maneuvered him into the desert for forty years. The Law, the Covenant and the Commandments are all given there. Their main images of God are formed there – Yhwh, Fire, The Way, The Rock, Mystery Revealed.

When they get to the Promised Land they are told they don’t own it. When they get into the wrong attitude to the Land and to wealth, God sent the prophets to warn them and remind them of their desert identity. Time forbids me to mention the significance of the desert in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Hosea and Malachi. In fact, this survey doesn’t leave much out, does out. How did we overlook this expansive theme so thoroughly?

New Testament

We can go further. In Jesus’ time, when Israel wanted to recover its integrity and identity, various messiahs and in fact John the Baptist returned people to the desert. The Dead Sea scrolls people, the Essenes, did it, and another Jewish community near Alexandria, and a host of other individuals, were all doing this around Jesus in different ways.

For centuries, therefore, the refrain that revitalized Israel’s faith was ‘back to the desert’, but how? Jesus had options in how he went about this, so when he acts he is acting deliberately. Later, on the mount of Transfiguration, Luke records that when Jesus chats with Moses and Elijah, Jesus’ mission is spoken of exhaustively in terms of carrying out another desert ‘exodus’ – a journey of freedom. So, a marginal journey to the Desert is not an option for Jesus.

A desert journey is the paper on which the story of faith is always written. Why is to so? We shall soon see, but first the other main way of remembering the desert in our lives.

b. How will you Remember to Practise the Desert in mainstream society?

It is never supposed to be something that stays out on the margins. It is supposed to go home with you and transform your life. The book of Deuteronomy, written on the edge of the Promised Land, at the place where Jesus’ baptism takes place, repeats again and again, ‘do not forget to do what you have learned when you enter your ease in the promised Land,’ and it sets them up with several institutionalized ways so they would never forget:

The biggest example among these is the annual pilgrimage (compulsory) Feast of Tabernacles, Booths Sukkot. For one week every year, every body had to sleep out under the stars. They did this to remember who they were and whose they were.

They remembered the awesome truth : ‘us plus God plus nothing’ = who we really are. No ‘plus our buildings no money no land’ . Np ‘plus our music or preaching’ NOT even ‘plus our spirituality’, not even ‘plus our great faith in you’, not even, ‘plus our great spiritual experiences’ – simply, it was a way of driving home the point to our selves – we hold no hope but God. And God loves just us, plus nothing. Just me and God and the clear air of love – that is enough.

This practice, in one action, removed all other idols from their places in their value system. Every one every year. In fact both scripture and history bear out that Tabernacles was the biggest festival of the lot, bigger than Passover.

Don’t think that this was just a religious history lesson. It was a way of taking hold of our identity. That is why it was always at this event when they dedicated or rededicated the tabernacles and temples, and the levite priests were dedicated too, amidst much singing and dancing, and some say much drinking. It was at this feast when Hannah prayed for a baby and Eli thought she had been drinking. It was at this feast that Jesus made his greatest claims and greatest confrontations (Jn 7-8). Never forget the desert, it says, we must never forget who we really are – Us plus God plus Nothing.

This and other institutions of Israel were set up as the seats in which the call to reform and renewal could constantly be heard. What sort of ways have you set up so you can constantly enact the desert truth :‘you plus God plus nothing is who you really are’ ?

Let’s move from public institutions to personal level practices. There are other ways in the mainstream, where Jesus’ kept a personal practice of prayer in the way of the desert. Just one I can mention now is the practice of prayer in solitude. He taught us the necessity to pray alone – ‘when you pray, go into your room alone, etc’. About a dozen times that are recorded he went off alone to pray, and taught his disciples to do the same. When he was among farms and towns and villages, he went, it says (in a way that is made obscure in the English it might be better in your other languages) to a deserted place. The word used is the greek word for desert eremos – he was doing a desert prayer time. If you study those times, in the majority of recorded cases anyway, they were not sweet retreats but uncomfortable experiences. Prayer that shows where we are uncomfortable, in solitude, open to the sky and stars is wondrously renewing and kind of scary.

And there are other practices too which I will just mention in a moment.

So, church, let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves how we are doing with this essential element of a biblical faith. Do we gather annually to say – No buildings no money no land and no hope but God? Where do we deliberately and together discomfort ourselves and remove all other idols from our value system? Sorry Deuteronomy, I think we forgot ….

So whether in mainstream practices in public or private, or in the more marginal form of journey into and out of the desert, the spiritual values of the desert are not optional for biblical people. Especially when Australia has so many great deserts just a day away. Jesus remained faithful to this central pillar of faith through his forty days and his ongoing years. They defined strongly his life and his message and he taught his disciples to do likewise.

It was not much later in in Christian History, that the Desert Fathers and Mothers became known as typical of Christianity. John Wesley said they were the ‘true christians’. Thousands of Christians left homes and went to live in prayer communities. Ironically they renewed the whole church, throughout the Empires east and west, ac church that had thrived on persecution but was getting used to its safe position and later position of privilege, and going rotten. The Desert Fathers and Mothers practiced several disciplines, they they were not at all systematic about it, just dedicated to a holy love. They were not mystics, not pole sitters, not haters of women and not haters of life. They strived to reach as far as possible into the love of God – they practised four personal disciplines of – solitude, repentance, fasting (including celibacy), and meditation (upon scripture and sacrament). Through this they lived in simplicity.

They also shared in some disciplines of living in community – work (to earn their own keep), simplicity of lifestyle, deeds of kindness, and obedient submission of self. Through this they have for fifteen hundred years, repeatedly inspired the whole Christian movement into renewal. First they empowered the church to take the gospel throughout all of pagan western Europe and east into China, by the sixth century.

About every 500 years, they reappear in our teaching at times of great change. But we forget. We create idols in our churches. We get proud of our achievements and stuck on our traditions. It is particularly westerners who have forgotten – I would say that the churches in China and Kore are much closer to the discipleship of Jesus. Some good news at last, the study of the Bible’s desert spirituality has been growing for almost half a century now – Our time has come to remember. Praise to the Holy Spirit who has not forgotten us.

Let me close with the picture we have painted.

Jesus is baptized by John and explodes into history. God the Three in One wraps him in love, exposes us all to the harsh light of reality that we all have to deal with in our thinking. Then, the Holy Spirit of God sends the Son of God like a projectile into the desert.

Yes, as Matthew and Luke say, Jesus needs to get his bearings, orient his strategy and get his integrity sorted. But also as Mark shows, Jesus must learn in the flesh and not forget how to stand before God with nothing. As we do. Well, if he needed that, do you think that we do? Did you think that it was your talents your looks your organizational ability that God wanted? Your money? Your buildings and resources? No it is you. God loves just you. He will get around to calling you into some action or other, but please don’t go, please don’t do anything until you know how much a Just God just loves just YOU.

Those who physically can’t come to the marginal desert lands on a journey, or can’t go to Koora retreat centre on the edge of the desert, can (must) make ways to practice the desert’s disciplines here in the mainstream. That is, start soon to learn fasting, solitude, maybe celibacy, simplicity, generosity, generous acts of kindness and so on – to the extent where you know ‘you plus God plus nothing’.

His desire is for just you. It is you plus nothing that God loves with the power that animates the entire universe. Now, can you say with me this meditation again that is a response of love to God alone.

Read Ps 62.5-8 for God alone my soul waits

Fullness and Emptiness.

We have heard your name, Father Son and Holy Spirit.

You were at our baptism, too. One with us.

In you we live and move, Creator, Saviour and Comforter.

In Love, In Life

Your Timeless breath sustains us.

We have been wondrously in awe in the mystery of who you are.

Wet, blood and flesh like us.

We know enough that we do not know everything.

So, Yahweh Rock and Fire,

our hearts desires are all afire

to be at One with you.

Reframe our minds, reshape our foundations,

So that we can obey all that we do know,

And find the trajectory into more

and more and more.

Triune Trinity One.

Fullest Love, Cosmic Community,

We confess that we are so full of ourselves.

Empty us to prepare us for fullness,

Discomfort us to prepare us for joy,

Expose and cast down our idols,

Be One with us and be our Only One –

Call us to your desert and bring us home new.

In the name of Jesus, friend of John,

And walker in the wilderness, Amen

CONCLUSION

I do not know what you are going to do about this. Some of you it is just off your map, and you can’t relate to it at all, maybe. Some of you may wish you could dismiss it that easily, but you know there is something in this. Some of you know that God is calling you into his Love. Do it. Do it badly if you have to. But do it in the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

Makes You Wonder Resources

The Light of the World Has Come

This lecture was given in Perth, Western Australia, on January 6th, the Sunday of Epiphany, which commemorates a group of magi who came from ‘the east’ to the home of Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus.

Australian Joke: why did the first Christmas not happen in Perth? You can’t find three wise men ‘over east’. The rejoinder: it is also too hard to find both a virgin and an honourable man in Perth.

The story moves dramatically. A long search, they meet the King, a Jerusalem theological colloquium, the wise men then head south and find the child, and Herod sends troops to slaughter any boy under two, while the holy family escape westwards. What is this about? Well it is not like the Sunday school pageants in the traditions of western Europe, which do have their point, by the way. Note in the bible that there are three kinds of gift not three kings. Also, these magi arrive after the birth (v1) to see a child (paidion v 11) not a baby, in a house (11) not a stable. It appears from Herod’s best enquiries and the orders he gave the soldiers , that the infant Jesus was born up to two years prior to the arrival of the wise men. Herod died soon after so we are probably looking at the period 2-3BC.

Who are these magi? They were not kings. The word, ‘magi,’ which is sometimes translated ‘wise men,’ is the root from which we get our word ‘magic.’ Some of them were learned men who studied the physical world and were knowledgeable about many things, including the stars. Magi were often court astronomers and diviners who were consulted by the rulers of the day for guidance in affairs of state. This was an old and longstanding practice and very wide spread. For example, some 500 years earlier, King Nebuchadnezar in Babylon kept a stable of court magi. He even appointed the Jewish prophet Daniel to be his Chief Magus when Daniel was able to interpret a dream which the other magi could not.

The star of the story is the star. What star is that? Or is it just fanciful legend as Jack Spong and others would maintain? Let us use this celestial focus to work through the story, with great debt to The STAR project, by Frederick Larson.

(Researched and written by: Frederick A. Larson The STAR Project, A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, 111 University Drive East, Suite 220, College Station, Texas 77840-1700 USA, http://bethlehemstar.net/)

Working from the Biblical account in Matthew, unpacking it verse by verse, Larson compiled a list of nine qualities which must be present before any celestial phenomena could be considered to be the Biblical Star of Bethlehem. He took a very forensic approach, that is – looked for clues and used them to paint a ‘most likely’ picture.

v1 After Jesus was bornin Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,

When exactly was this? To begin, the date of Herod’s death is crucial to the investigation. Until recently the popularly accepted date was 4BC, based on one version of the text of Josephus, so then Christ had to be born a year or two before that– so, 5 or 6 BC. But according to another text of Josephus, the most recent theory is that Herod died in 1 BC, then we should look at the years 2 and 3 BC. For the sake of time, that is where we will go to assess the rest of the evidence.

1 (cont’d) Magi from the east came to Jerusalem

Matthew does report that the Wise Men were from the East, most likely Babylon in present day Iraq. Philo (a philosopher of Jesus period) records that there were scholarly Jewish and non-Jewish schools in Babylon. So it is possible the Wise Men were of this prestigious Eastern school. This would account for Herod giving them an audience, and for his strong reaction to the news they brought.

2 the magi asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?

The Magis’ question gives us three points for our list of qualifications for the Star. Whatever happened in the sky indicated 1) birth, 2) kingship and 3) Jews. It also gives us a clue about the Magi. They were interested in things Jewish.

2 (cont’d) We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."

The Greek text here says they saw the Star in the east – "en anatole" – meaning they saw his star rising in the east. Nothing remarkable about that. Because of the rotation of the Earth, stars and planets normally arise in the east. So, that’s another qualification for the Star: it must rise in the east like most other stars. Not a meteor, not a supernova. So it follows that its distinctiveness would not be immediately obvious to all.

The motive of the Magi in coming to Jerusalem tells us more about them. They wanted to worship a Jewish king. It can’t be proven, but maybe the Magi were of Jewish descent. This would help explain why a Jewish philosopher, Philo, would admire them, why they wanted to pay him homage, and why they were taken so seriously by Herod and the Jerusalem establishment. In our times, Jewish or not, they would be called New-Agers. They were persuaded somehow that this event was a mystery of great significance in the region. Thus, this story is a model of how the person of Jesus fulfills the searching that lies at the foundations of all religions. That does not make Christianity better than other religions at all things, it just means we all need to welcome Jesus into our lives, not just the church – but no more about that issue today.

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

Why were Herod and Jerusalem so very troubled at the Magis’ news? The threat of another king, obviously, but why did they take it so seriously? Not obvious to us, respect for the stars and guidance derived from them was at a peak in the ancient world, so they took the magi’s interpretation seriously. For example, Suetonius the Roman historian tells us that 60 years earlier, some other magi had made a presentation to the Roman Senate. They described portents in the stars indicating that a new ruler had been born. The Senate responded by ordering the death of baby boys in the candidate age range. Sound familiar? Later, when Herod, who was fond of being more Roman than the Romans, ordered the slaughter of all male toddlers under two in Bethlehem he may have been following a Roman precedent. That may be one further reason Jerusalem was troubled at the news the Wise Men brought. Perhaps they realized that their overlords the Romans, as occupying army, might come down and shed their blood in response.

4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: 6 "’But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’"

Herod took the Magis’ message as factual, and consulted Jerusalem’s biblical scholars about the location of the birth. The fateful verse in the Book of Micah soon resulted in the death of many little boys in Bethlehem. We don’t how many – one would be too many. When we read of innocent bloodshed in Kenya and Gaza and Iraq, and other places where the young die too soon, we must recall that this was the very context for Jesus’ birth.

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.

Another qualification for the Star: 5) It appeared at an ‘exact time’. And yet another qualification: 6) Herod didn’t know when it appeared. He had to ask.

8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was and they were overwhelmed with joy.

And now we have the last three qualifications for the Star: 7) its remarkable qualities endured or reappeared over a considerable period of time. The Magi saw it from where they lived in the east, traveled to Judea and saw it again or saw it still. 8) It ‘went ahead of them’ as they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The Star was not needed to guide the travelers to Bethlehem. At a very visible five miles south of Jerusalem on the main road, they couldn’t miss it. No, the Star that had been in the east appears again or still, this time in the south as a confirmation of the signs they had seen. They were overjoyed, either because it was a second appearance of the same brilliant star or because it came to a full stop right on cue. Which is the ninth characteristic of the star we seek. The Star stopped! Can a star do that?

We now know much about what the Star must be to satisfy the evidence.

  1. It signified birth.
  2. It signified kingship.
  3. It had a connection with the Jewish nation.
  4. It rose in the east, like other stars.
  5. It appeared at a precise time.
  6. Herod didn’t know when it appeared.
  7. It endured over time.
  8. It was ahead of the Magi as they went south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
  9. It stopped over Bethlehem.

But What was the guilty Star?

Was it a meteor? Lie on your back in a clear desert night and you will see twenty meteorites on any night, going in different directions. It is not obvious how the Magi could form significant associations with kingship, birth, the Jews, the Messiah’s birthplace and all. The Star was very likely not a meteor.

Perhaps a comet? There are several problems with the comet hypothesis.

The first problem is sociological. At this time in history (and all the way into the middle ages), comets were well-observed and well-recorded and always regarded as omens of doom and destruction, the very opposite of good tidings. A bigger problem is that no comets are recorded for these years. Finally, comets are obvious things. Herod would not have needed to ask the Magi when such a thing appeared. The Biblical Star was very likely not a comet.

What about a super-nova? A nova is an exploding star, that appears suddenly at a point in time, endures over a fairly short time, can be spectacular but may not be. No novae are recorded in the ancient records for this period. If a nova had suddenly appeared, many astronomers would likely know about it, and Herod would not have had to ask the Magi when it appeared. The Star was probably not a nova.

That Herod had to ask when the Star appeared is a powerful clue. Anyone can glance up and see planets and stars. But, in this case, apparently, one could look up at the Star without realizing it. Herod didn’t know of it. It took experts to explain it. But once the Star phenomenon was pointed out, all Jerusalem went abuzz, and Herod jumped into murderous action. A reasonable hypothesis is that the Star must have been something in the normal night sky which was striking when explained. Did anything interesting happen in the night skies over the Middle East in 3 or 2 BC?

Larson’s investigations led him to the behavior of the bright planet JUPITER, the name of the greatest god of Roman mythology. And the name of the largest planet of our solar system, the fourth brightest object in the night sky. Jupiter has been known from ages-old to the present as the King Planet. This "gas giant," is eleven times the size of Earth and circles the Sun far beyond Earth, in an orbit of about twelve earth-years duration. In ancient times, planets like Jupiter were considered "wandering stars" because, we now can say, their motion and positioning was out of sync with earth’s motion, like cars from bicycles.

This large planet to which humans have assigned divine or kingly qualities for dozens of centuries, has something to do with our Star announcing the birth of a king.

To be Jesus’ Star, Jupiter as viewed from the middle east would have to do peculiar things during the years 3 and 2 BC, in fact all nine characteristics of the Star. In September of 2 or 3 BC (Larson says 3BC, my computer programme shows it as September of -2BC, but then it sometimes shows a year as 0000, so it may be a year out when it goes BC – we will stick with Larson’s dates) at the time of the Jewish New Year (September-October), Jupiter began to do just that. And the following year did something else even more remarkable.

Lets look at these two events, and note that it is only in the days of personal computers that these ideas can be worked out. This is new news. For a few hundred dollars you can now buy software that will give you a visual representation of the night sky at any moment in history and from any position on earth. In all the previous centuries until the last decade, theories of planetary position was a matter of laborious calculation. It should be noted that Larson’s work has received high commendations from scientists and astronomers – it is not a cosmic conspiracy stunt. It is new news.

The first conjunction

A magus watching Jupiter late September 3BC saw two objects moving so close that they appeared to touch. This close approach of celestial bodies is sometimes called a ‘conjunction.’ Jupiter came into close conjunction with the star, known in English as Regulus. Regulus takes its name from the word for king. In fact both the Babylonians and the Romans called Regulus Sharu or Rex, which means ‘king.’ So at the beginning of the new Jewish year, the Planet of Kings met the Star of Kings. This conjunction may have indicated kingship in a forceful way to a Babylonian magus (satisfying one qualification for the Star), but would it have startled him?

Probably not. Jupiter glides slowly past Regulus about every 12 years. We don’t know how old the Magi were, but if our man was in the second half of his career, he might have seen such a conjunction two or three times before. Not every conjunction would have been quite as close as the one he saw in 3 BC, so it would be recorded with some interest, but not great excitement. But, of course, there is more.

Triple conjunction and Retrograde motion

The planets move against the field of fixed stars. From Earth, they appear to be "active." For example, were you to watch Jupiter each night for several weeks, you would see that it moves eastward (backwards) through the starry field, just as the moon does each day. Each night Jupiter rises in the east (satisfying a second Star qualification).

But the wandering stars exhibit another, stranger motion. Periodically, they appear to reverse course and move backward through the other stars. This may seem odd, but the reason is simple enough: we watch the planets from a moving platform—Earth—hurtling around the Sun in its own orbit. When you pass a bicycle on the highway, your neck turns backwards, the bike appears to go backward as it drops behind, though it has its own forward motion. For similar reasons, when the Earth in its orbit spins past another planet, that planet appears to move backward against the starry field. Astronomers call this optical effect retrograde motion.

In 3/2 BC, Jupiter’s retrograde wandering would have called for our magus’ full attention. Both before and after Jupiter and Regulus had their kingly encounter, Jupiter had entered retrograde. It entered the constellation Virgo(the virgin) then "changed its mind" and headed back to Regulus for a second conjunction. It is amazing to watch on a time lapse computer programme. After this second pass it reversed course again for yet a third rendezvous with Regulus, a triple conjunction. A triple pass like this is more rare. Over a period of months, our watching magus would have seen the Planet of Kings dance across the Star of Kings. Jupiter’s interesting behavior explains the kingly aspect of the Star.

Birth?

So around the time of Jesus birth or conception a remarkable kingly display is on show for those who watch long enough. How did Jupiter’s movement relate to the Jewish nation? Is its association with the Jewish New Year enough? And where is an indication of a birth?

The Jewish nation is composed of twelve ancient tribes. Jewish prophecy states that a particular tribe will bring forth the Messiah: the tribe of Judah. The symbol of Judah’s tribe is the lion. Kin David was known as a lion, coming from that tribe. You can see these connections in an ancient prediction of Messiah’s coming found in the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, Chapter 49: 9 You are a lion’s cub, O Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness– who dares to rouse him? 10 The sceptre (the sign of kingship) will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

This association of Kingship and Messiah with the tribe of Judah and with the lion is a clue. It clarifies the connection between Jupiter’s behavior and the Jewish nation, because the starry coronation—the triple conjunction—occurred within the constellation of Leo, The Lion. Ancient stargazers, particularly if they were interested in things Jewish, may well have concluded they were seeing signs of a Jewish king. Presumably the passage from kingship to the Virgo/virgin and back to kingship was a portent that might indicate a birth. One can see how it might be so – all this took place between September (the rise into visibility of Jupiter) and the following May when it descend below the horizon.

Not all of Larson’s argument did I find compelling. But anyway if these symbols could have been taken to indicate a birth or conception might there be something interesting in the sky nine months later which would confirm that interpretation? Indeed. In June of 2 BC, Jupiter continued the pageantry.

A fourth conjunction

By the following June, King Planet Jupiter had finished the triple conjunction with King Star Regulus, and traveled on through the star field toward another spectacular rendezvous, this time with Venus, the Mother Planet, within the constellation of Virgo, the virgin. This conjunction was so close and so bright that it is today displayed in hundreds of planetaria around the world by scientists who may know nothing of Messiah. They do it because what Jupiter did makes such a great planetarium show – two of the very brightest stars meet. Jupiter appeared to join Venus. The planets could not be distinguished with the naked eye but became the most brilliant star our man had ever seen. (This conjunction will again take place on Jan 31 this year around 8pm low in the south west, I think. We can think on its summons.) That evening, our magus would have seen the spectacle of his career while facing west toward Judea. No one alive had ever seen such a conjunction. Its interpretation, in the science of its day, were ‘virgin, mother, birth, out west and a king’s king’. We have to conclude that in this small period of time Jupiter had issued a summons. If they weren’t already on the road, they would be motivated to go by this spectacular passage.

How long did they travel? We don’t know when they left or when they arrived in Jerusalem. They told their tale, and "all Jerusalem was disturbed." Herod wanted to know two things: when the Star had appeared, and where this baby was. The Magi answered the when question – presumably they described the events starting in September of 3 BC and continuing through June of 2 BC. The theologians gave the location which presumably the magi did not know exactly. For all they knew, they sought in the royal palace of the house of Judah. But to their great joy, in December of 2 BC if the Magi looked south just before dawn, the Planet of Kings hung in the south over the town of the Messiah’s birth.

All but one of the nine Biblical qualifications for the Star have now been plausibly satisfied:

  1. The first conjunction signified birth by its association to the day with Virgo "birthing" the new moon. Some might argue that the unusual triple conjunction by itself could be taken to indicate a new king.
  2. The Planet of King’s coronation of the Star of Kings signified kingship.
  3. The triple conjunction began with the Jewish New Year and took place within Leo, showing a connection with the Jewish tribe of Judah (and prophecies of the Jewish Messiah).
  4. Jupiter rises in the east.
  5. The conjunctions appeared at precise, identifiable times.
  6. Herod was unaware of these things; they were astronomical events which had significance only when explained by experts.
  7. The events took place over a span of time sufficient for the Magi to see them both from the East and upon their arrival in Jerusalem.
  8. Jupiter was ahead of the Magi as they traveled south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

The planet stops

But the ninth point would require that Jupiter stop over Bethlehem. How could a planet do that? And did Jupiter do it?

For some people, there is no problem at all with a planet stopping. Just the opposite. The planets are always stopped to the eye of a human observer. The sky moves above Earth at only half the speed of the hour hand on a common clock. Its movement is only perceptible to the patient eye. So, if all stars are always stopped, what can Matthew have meant?

Perhaps you have already guessed: retrograde motion. An astronomer tracking the movement of planets through the star field watches not so much on the scale of minutes, but on the longer scale of days, weeks and months. On this scale of time, Jupiter did stop. Believe it or not, it was on December 25 of 2 BC that Jupiter in the south began to retrograde, and as it did of course it reached full stop in its travel through the fixed stars. Magi viewing from Jerusalem would have seen it stopped in the sky above the little town of Bethlehem. So, ironically, Dec 25 is not the date of Jesus’ birth but of the magi visit.

What are to make of all this? There are, to be honest, other theories.

The science may be of no interest to you, for which this failed-biochemist apologises. It is a relief that faith and science have a plausible conversation when often they are made to seem at odds. But hear this – Epiphany is good news.

The early Christians were impudent enough to claim that the coming of Christ Jesus was for everybody, everywhere, for all time. In the story of the coming of the magi to Bethlehem, they saw a declaration of the universality of Christ’s kingdom. This birth was not a minor incident in an insignificant location, but a happening of cosmic relevance. It was a revelation; an epiphany. It was not a fanciful legend of literature or tradition, its phenomena can today be tracked in the sky of its day. Notice that immediately above Bethlehem on that morning, the Southern Cross already signals the Saviour’s role in history. (It is currently not visible from this latitude but was visible then.)

Christians believe that in Christ God was breaking down the barriers of race and social distinctions and was superseding all religions. God was breaking in among the vulnerable and powerless to side with them against the mighty. This was indeed an impudent claim, and we have to be honest that it can give offense to the religious and the powerful. That the man Jesus, a prophet of brief activity from a distant outpost of the mighty Roman Empire, was held up as the Saviour and Lord of all, was a joke to both cultured Roman and Greek. But the Christians went on impudently proclaiming this message no matter how often they were mocked, thrown out of town, out of jobs, into prison, or executed.

Epiphany is a Greek word used chiefly for the unveiling of a God to the eyes of human beings. It is the event of revelation. The church did not invent this. They did not ask for this. The impudence, as Bruce Prewer calls it, is God’s, as he reclaims the lost world for himself in love, one person at a time.

Some times those first Christians expressed their glorious, impudent, epiphany gospel with plain words like St Paul used: “We have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”. This was reinforced by the words of the prophet Isaiah who looked forward to a time when the light of the Presence of God would shine forth from Jerusalem, ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising……….. And they shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.’

Let us not shrink-wrap Christianity to make it less impudent than it is nor presume to soften the sharp edges to make it just another religion. God has spoken a unique word to us in Christ Jesus, which makes all religions including Christianity very relative, and it is our solemn privilege to get ourselves organised to share that word. Jesus Christ truly is our joy and salvation.

We are not in the business of saying that others are all wrong and that we are completely right. We leave the judgement of others to God, just as Jesus says in Matt 25 that he will bring judgment against Christianity. Our task is to be faithful to the Epiphany that happened in Christ Jesus. With due respect for other views and other religions, I believe the world still needs us to carry on with that impudence of the early apostles: Christ Jesus has a universal relevance. Jesus Christ is Lord, tot he glory of God the Father. Let it be said clearly, let it be lived wholeheartedly, as Isaiah said:

And Nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your rising.

In 2008, let our life word and deeds proclaim – The Light of the World has Come.