The Feast of the Epiphany, Church of the Epiphany, Sherwood

“We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matt. 2:2).

If you look up at the night sky, you will see the stars and planets, and the moon in season; maybe some other things as well: satellites whirring around, a stray plane or two, maybe a comet or shooting star. People don’t know as much as they used to about the objects in the night sky. The ability to discern the constellations has been forgotten as its utility as a means of telling times and seasons reaches vanishing point. The position of the planets is no longer called upon much these days in order to chart a course. Of course, it’s also harder to actually see anything up there as light pollution increases. The heavens are not what they once were.

It’s astonishing to me that the light that comes to us from the stars is actually old, coming from light years away. Some of this light is very old indeed: thousands of years old, coming from a great distance across a vast gulf of darkness. The night sky is full of mystery as well, an expanse full of light that stands in contrast to the darkness. As it says in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

Our Gospel today, the story of the magi led by the star, and the evil king Herod, gives us another telling of the Christmas story: one that is not so much driven by astral phenomenon as by biblical prophecy, foretelling the coming of the Messiah. Of course, the story involves a star, but the appearance of the star is rooted in a prophecy preserved in the Book of Numbers, of all obscure places, encapsulated in a story that deserves to be better known.

Balak is a Gentile king from across the river Jordan, who is moving with his army against the Hebrews who are passing through Moab on their way to the Promised Land. He summons Balaam, a wise man from the East, in order to curse the Hebrews and soften them up for the Moabite onslaught. The trouble is that God appears to Balaam and reveals that he should bless, not curse, the People of God.

Balak’s messengers, however, convince Balaam that he should accept the mission. So God sends an angel with a drawn sword to block Balaam’s journey to Moab: an angel that the donkey he is riding can see but that Balaam cannot see. When Balaam gets mad and spurs the donkey on, the beast starts talking (good heavens!), and then Balaam sees the angel standing in his way. By the time that the wise man meets with King Balak at the border of Moab, he’s thoroughly convinced that God is on the side of the Hebrews.

Though Balak offers him gold and silver to curse the Hebrews, Balaam can only pronounce a blessing. Here’s what he says, “The oracle of Balaam, the son of Beor… the oracle of one who hears the words of God… who sees the vision of the Almighty… I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near – a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter arise out of Israel” (Num. 24:15-17). Here the story ends, with Balaam returning to his own country, and the wider struggle unresolved.

“A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter arise out of Israel” (Num. 24:17): in the light of this prophecy we can see that the Wise Men from the east in our Gospel are following an ancient path first blazed by Balaam, mounted on his donkey. He came to curse but remained to bless, while the Wise Men in our Gospel brought gifts and paid homage. Evil King Herod is a stand in for the earlier King of Moab: both kings seek to destroy what God meant to use for salvation. The star of Bethlehem is the messianic star foretold by Balaam: a star that reflects the coming of Jesus, the One promised long ago. It foretells the coming of the King, the One who bears a royal scepter. When the Wise Men look into the night sky, they see the mystery of God’s dealings with humanity, and God’s purpose of salvation.

The Savior comes, worshiped by some, opposed by others. Most of us are like Balaam, seeing the vision but having a hard time following through. Sometimes even a jackass can teach us a lesson! We’re meant to be like the Wise Men, though, bringing our gifts and bending our knees. The light that reaches us from the ancient prophecy of the star has traveled a long distance to reach us, but it reveals the Messiah, the One who compels our worship and commands our love.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee