On Christmas Day NASA scientists launched the James Webb Space Telescope into outer space. Since then it has been traveling at over three thousand miles an hour toward its destination a million miles from the earth. There it will sit in orbit as its scientists focus their technologically enhanced gaze on points in such far off space that they will actually peer back in time, to study the origins of the first galaxies in the universe, and the birth of the first stars.
Seeing a telescope launched at Christmas and unfurled around Epiphany I can’t help but see these world-class NASA scientists as modern magi. I know the 12 days of Christmas are over and Epiphany is gone, but just humor me.
We call them the 3 kings, but the Magoi whose visitation and adoration the church celebrated this last Thursday were likely ancient astronomers who spent their nights setting their gaze on the night sky, measuring the movement of the stars.
It was while stargazing that they noticed a new star “at its rising.” They didn’t know what to make of it until they read a prophecy of the Jews which led them to Bethlehem and a newborn king.
What the Magi didn’t realize then (and what the NASA scientists may or may not know now) is that the practice of stargazing puts them in a fraternity with father Abraham whose story we read in Genesis.
It was in the dark of night that the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a dream. It wasn’t the first time. Back in chapter twelve, the Word came to Abraham and called him on a journey fueled by nothing a promise, God’s promise to provide both children and land. But this night in chapter fifteen is months if not years later. And so, when the Word of the Lord comes to Abraham this time, Abraham’s got questions.
“You told me and my wife that we would have a child, and that you would lead us to this land that you promised, Lord. But that was many moons and miles ago. So what gives? How am I supposed to believe you, O Lord?”
“Go outside,” says the Lord.
Begrudgingly Abraham gets out of bed, slips on his robe and slippers, and walks out into the night.
There the Word of the Lord instructs him saying “Look up at the stars. Go ahead. Count them if you can.”
Abraham looks up and beholds a firmament resplendent with heavenly bodies, a sky full of stars. But he does not count them, because there are way too many, and under his robe he’s getting very cold.
“See them all?” said the Lord, “that’s how many children I’m going to give to you. So shall your descendants be.”
And then, says Genesis chapter fifteen, “Abraham believed the Lord.”
I don’t know enough about astronomy to know what the NASA scientists expect to see when they peer into the origins of the universe. One thing they won’t find there is the universe’s Originator.
What Genesis and indeed the whole Bible suggest is that the creator of the universe is not distant, and does not remain aloft and aloof in the heavens. This is a God who comes looking for us here, even in the middle of the night, to instruct our ways, and conscript us into divine plans.
The God revealed in Genesis is a God bound and determined to save a world gone awry who leaves the vaults of heaven and comes to Abraham and Sarah, conscripting them into a plan to form a people, a nation from an old barren couple. Through them God will bring forth a constellation of children, and through those children illuminate, bless, and save all the children of the world.
This is a God whose Word promises, out of these dying stars, to bring new light to the world.
But it’s funny, the next time the Bible mentions stars is from the mouth of a gentile, someone who is not one of Abraham’s children.
Centuries later when Abraham’s children are numerous but still wandering in the wilderness, the king of Moab sends out one of his prophets, a guy named Balaam, to curse them. But the Word of the Lord then comes to Balaam, a Gentile, and instead of cursing Abraham’s children, Balaam blesses them with a starlit promise.
“A ruler will come and conquer your enemies,” Balaam says, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. Nevertheless, a star will come out of Israel.”
Centuries later the promise comes true as other Gentiles, astronomers from the east, discover a new star rising out of Israel, leading them to a new king and ruler whos lineage stretches all the way back to Genesis. His name is Jesus, son of Abraham, son of God.
His arrival is worth celebrating all year long, but here’s the thing. It wasn’t enough for him to just come into the world. As John says, the light of this star of Abraham has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.
The plight of Abraham’s children has always been to be strangers in the world, often cast aside, oppressed, exiled, killed, and the same is true of Abraham’s star child. What’s more, he came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. His is a star that falls from grace. He doesn’t just fall, he’s pushed, pushed out of the world onto a cross by Gentile and Jew alike.
Nevertheless, he is bound and determined to save us. And so, rising from the grave, he forgives them, instructs them, and conscripts them into divine plans. By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection, by sheer grace, God gives birth to the church, who (in time) by the power of the Holy Spirit, come to number the stars.
Just a few years after the resurrection Jews and Gentiles have together started worshiping and following Christ, this son of Abraham, as the Son of God. Sometimes they refer to him as their Morning Star, the star that shows up at the end of the night, to signal the rising sun and usher in the dawn.
In Philippians, the Apostle Paul prays for them, that they might live as “children of God who shine like stars in the world.”
“Look up at the stars,” God said to Abraham, “so shall your descendants be.” Centuries later, here they are, illumined by the light of Christ to shine like stars in the world.
If we look up at the stars and follow them as they light a path through the Bible, we come to find out that when the World of the Lord came to Abrahm, It turns out God wasn’t lying.
I can’t wait to find out what the James Webb Telescope reveals, what long hidden mysteries it uncovers for us. And at the same time, the most important truth we could ever learn was revealed long before the invention of even the most rudimentary telescope. It was revealed by starlight to Abraham, written about in the scriptures, and ultimately made flesh in Christ our Lord, the Morning Star who leads us from deepest night into eternal dawn.
Hear the good news, God is not a liar. Christ has come, and by the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection, he has numbered you among the stars, by adoption making us children of Abraham, children of God, and calling us to shine with his light in the world. You can question it, you can explore it, you can doubt it, you can run from it, you can deny it. But the one thing you cannot do is change it. God has spoken.
Look up at the stars, and believe the word of the Lord.