I’ve enjoyed watching the planets meander across the sky over the past weeks. They are startlingly bright and I look forward to seeing the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter on December 21. Some have made the natural connection between the star of Bethlehem and this rare planetary alignment. It makes sense that people would do that, since the event will occur four days before Christmas, but it’s wrong. I completely agree with Steve Gollmer of Cedarville University in his recent comments in Baptist Press, saying that it’s bad astronomy and bad interpretation of Scripture to associate the two celestial events. But I think there’s a more basic misunderstanding going on here.
We would love it if more people believed what we believe about God. That’s why I’ve heard (and likely taught a few times) that many of the biblical miracles are plausible, based on what science has discovered in recent years. That’s why I have heard stories about men who survived after being in the belly of a whale, and that some fish, groupers I think, grow large enough so that a man could actually fit whole in their bellies. Therefore, Jonah’s testimony is more believable. Have you heard that? It was the kind of thing that we taught college and high school students back in the day.
Now understand that we did not teach that the water-into-wine miracle was actually just water poured into pots that had not had the wine rinsed out of them, that the multiplying of the loaves and fishes was a miracle of teaching people to share their “hide out” lunches, or that Jesus only appeared to walk on the water; we weren’t liberals who could not believe the biblical miracles. But we were eager to show that our faith is sensible, that we aren’t ignorant fundamentalists.
Here’s the deal, again crediting Dr. Gollmer: the star of Bethlehem did not act like a normal heavenly body. This star led the wise men to the very house where Jesus and his family were living. A star can lead you generally north but it can’t lead you to particular town or address. At least a normal star cannot do that. If you’ll think about Jonah maybe you remember the last verse of chapter one, which tells us that the LORD prepared, or “appointed,” a big fish to swallow Jonah. It doesn’t bother me at all if someone says, “That is believable because some fish are that big anyway.” But neither does it bother me to find that such a thing is impossible, like a virgin birth is impossible, or a day when the earth stops its rotation for a while is impossible.
I’ve known well-meaning people who doubt every miracle in the Bible except the Resurrection. That’s a little like the way we used to teach students that Jesus straight up raised Lazarus from the dead but the star in Matthew 2 just might have been a natural phenomenon that God used for his purpose.
Surely you hear how silly that sounds. I believe that God made me, gave me this breath and raised a man from the dead who would never die again, a king who will return bodily riding a white horse; but I have some trouble believing that God prepared a particular star to behave like no other star ever?
These are not just extraordinary events, like an alignment of planets. They are signs; they have meaning; they are supposed to make us pause for a minute in wonder. The astrologers from the east who came to Bethlehem seeking a king were not amateurs. Such men knew that sometimes two, or even three, planets align and make a show in the sky. Maybe they had seen such phenomena themselves and maybe they’d heard about it from their teachers. What they saw when Jesus was born was a sign, something that moved them to head west with precious gifts – more than an extraordinary happening, a unique one. God intended it to be unique and impressive as he did with the healing of the blind and the raising of the dead in the Gospels. These signs were like a trumpet that silences a crowd so they can hear a message from the king, exactly like that.
It’s a great gift that God has given us minds, curiosity and encouragement to know his creation better as the years roll on. I love that we can see billions of miles into the universe through telescopes. I am deeply moved to see a recognizable, unique human face in the womb through a 3-D ultrasound. But I don’t think we’ll ever discover anything that makes the star of Bethlehem mundane.
Standing before something only God could do, we are all wise men headed west and shepherds gaping at the baby Messiah. How wonderful!