Which star should we follow? A talk for 8am Holy Communion on Epiphany Matthew 2:1-12 by Revd Alex Pease

Have you ever counted the stars? Its the sort of thing that a child might try to do. And stop after the first 100 or so…..

In fact, there are about 5000 stars observable to the naked eye and about 9000 if you use a telescope. But scientists estimate that there are around a quadrillion stars in the universe.  Thats a million billion.  So there are a lot.

But the wise men followed just one. They were astrologers.  They spent a lot of time looking at the night sky.  Of course, they could only see what was observable to the naked eye.  Telescopes were only invented in the early 17th century by Hans Lippershey (not by Gallileo as we often think).

So the wise men would only have been able to see about 5000.

So, why did they follow just one?  Travelling over that difficult terrain of 1000 miles of desert, rivers and mountains?

What was so special about this star?

Three points:

Firstly, they had been studying the night sky for much of their lives and had reflected in detail on the significance of what they had seen and speculated on what it meant – they knew the night sky backwards- all the constellations; but this was something DIFFERENT, something of an altogether different quality perhaps brighter….

Now, of course, some have suggested the star could have been a comet….Halleys comet has been suggested, but that would have come round too early in 11/12BC.

Jesus is thought to have been born around 6BC, because Herod died in 4BC. (Our calendars get the dating wrong we should now be in 2025 if a monk who set the calendar hadn’t got the dates wrong).

Or it could have been a supernova: the explosion of a star

Or it could have been the planetary conjunction of Saturn and Jupitur which happened in 7BC.

But no astronomical phenomena would account for the movement of the star described in verse 9, which like a helicopter with a spot light…. went ahead of them after they left Herod – an entirely supernatural event.

So, firstly, they had been reflecting on what they observed and the star was different from all the stars around it.  There was something supernatural about it.

Secondly, the star was prophesied in the book of Numbers chapter 24:17.  Written in about 1400 BC the Moabite prophet Balaam prophesies ‘a star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel’.  The idea of a star indicating the birth of a king coming from Judea was well established amongst scholars of the time.

The wise men were probably ‘magi’ a priestly order of astrologers based in Babylon or Persia, which is where the Jewish exile and prophet Daniel was appointed head of the Magi by King Nebuchadnezzar after the exile in around 580 BC.  So it is not surprising that the magi would have known about that prophesy….

So, firstly the star was different from what was around

Secondly, it was prophesied

And thirdly the wise men were open to being guided by God.  They were able to discern that this star would lead them to some very special revelation of God – his messiah.  Like Abraham who travelled from Ur (which was near Babylon) guided by God to Canaan to the Promised Land.

You get a clue to this from verse 10 ‘when they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy’.  This was not ‘relief that the journey is over’ as someone might be after completing a marathon, although the 1000 mile journey was a marathon.  Or satisfaction that a job has been done, as a messenger might be delivering news that he has completed his task, although the delivery of the gifts was a task that they had set themselves; but ‘overwhelmed with joy’.

This is the sensation that you get….when your sneaking feeling that you are called by God down a path; when you find that the end of that path is a place in which you finally encounter the reason for life itself.  Those final pieces in the jigsaw which reveals the picture itself, the one person who makes sense of it all….Jesus.

There are as many directions that we can take in life as there are stars that can be seen in the night sky.  But if we want, at the conclusion of our journey, to find joy, to be overwhelmed by it, then, like the wise men we should follow Jesus’ star and bring the many gifts that we have to Him. 


Matthew 2:1–12(NRSV)

The Visit of the Wise Men

2In 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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