January 3, 2016, The Star vs. the Angels – guest speaker, Carroll Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: 120512_001
The summer before my last year in high school, my family took the long drive from Georgia, where we lived, back to Texas for a Boswell family reunion. I don’t remember much about it except we stayed at a camping place near Lake Whitney. There were cabins with screened in porches and there was fishing and swimming and all the fun stuff you are supposed to have and do on a vacation. But the only part of the week I remember at all clearly was sleeping outside by the lake one perfectly clear night and looking at the stars. I think I had never looked at stars before. When you are young you don’t get outside much after dark and when you do you are generally playing hide and seek or something that keeps your eyes focused on the things around you. That night, looking up at what seemed like a million stars, was one of those formative moments for me. I got a lifelong love of stars and astronomy and science, but more importantly I first began to realize how big the creation is. I had never felt emotionally what infinity means; and if anything the universe has only gotten infinitier as I have gotten older.
People in ancient times got that sense of the bigness of things very early on in those days before light pollution hid the night sky from us. It is no wonder that astronomy was one of the first sciences to begin. But astronomy grew up for practical reasons, not just being in awe of the sky; it grew up because they needed a good calendar. Their lives depended on the flooding of their river – it was the Euphrates in Babylon and the Nile in Egypt. They didn’t get rain and snow, weather patterns like we get. They depended on the floods to fertilize and irrigate their fields, and the floods depended on the weather in some other part of the world entirely. The cause of the floods was mysterious to them, but they soon noticed that the stars lined up with the floods.
So the story of the wise men really begins in Genesis 1:14, “And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years,” The stars were given as signs, and it was the Babylonians who became the first experts at reading the signs. It was the beginning of what we call science. Science is just the expertise we have developed at reading the signs God has given mankind to help us find our way. And one of the first major scientific discoveries was the calendar. It didn’t take long before this great discovery of the calendar spread throughout the ancient world and it all came from the Babylonians paying very very careful attention to the stars. The wise men were essentially scientists, from one of the more scientifically advanced nations on earth. Scientists of the present day study the signs and patterns in the sky and in all of nature much like those wise men did.
God gave the stars specifically as signs to all mankind; but not to Israel. They were the only people in the ancient middle east who did not use the stars for their calendar. The calendar of Israel came from God Himself and He told them to use the moon to date everything. It was at best a poor calendar. The phases of the moon do not come out even in a year. Look up when the full moon happens and you will notice that it is not the same day from year to year. If a month is the length of time from one new moon to the next, then there are twelve and a pesky fraction of months in a year. Every third year or so the Hebrews had to add a “leap month” to get their new year back its rightful time, near the beginning of barley planting season. God had given them an agricultural calendar rather than an astronomical one. For us it would be as if we scheduled the new year to begin on the first new moon after the snow melted. It would be like dating the new year like we date Easter, and you know how that changes every single year.
So why would God give them such a poorly designed calendar when all around them their neighbors had good calendars that were marvels of accuracy? It turns out that He didn’t want them to look at the stars. One problem was that the other peoples who did look to the stars for signs soon began to worship them as gods. They worshiped the stars and the moon and the sun, but God kept the Hebrews‘ eyes focused on what was going on around them, the cycles of planting and harvest. He wanted them to direct their lives by looking to Him, so He gave them a calendar that did not work too well so they would have to look to Him rather than the stars. It was not that the stars were bad, or that science was bad; it was that they had not learned to keep things in perspective. “Oh, this calendar works great. The stars make it work. The stars must be gods.” We still tend to worship what works.
What this means is that God kept His people from learning to read the signs He had given to the rest of the world. And that is why it was these astrologers from the east who saw the star and followed it. The wise men came from at least seven hundred miles away, probably from near the Babylon. They saw the star from seven hundred miles and the shepherds just out in the field down the road didn’t see it? Really? The scribes in Jerusalem a few miles away didn’t see it? Seriously? Of course the Israelites saw the star, but it didn’t mean anything to them. They didn’t care about stars. The star that announced the birth of the Son of God announced it to the world, not to Israel. When God announced the coming of the Messiah to His own people He used a totally different form of social media, using the signs He had given to Israel in particular. First, He announced it through the prophets. When the wise men got there, the scribes told them all they needed to know to narrow their search, because it was all right there in the prophets. And the shepherds probably thought the star was a nuisance, interrupting their sleep and confusing their sheep. What got their attention were the angels. The prophets, the angels, these were signs an Israelite could understand
God gave science, the stars, to the people of the whole earth, to be signs to us all of how to live wisely with nature, and we have read them well. We have learned how to recognize selenium deficiency in the soil, and what selenium is, and how to make trucks to move our food and people around, and how to tend the sick and measure the world. If you have learned the right perspective of the Spirit, that we should not worship the work of our own hands, then you should not despise science or any of the signs He has put into the world around us for our help. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork” (Psalm 19) and they still do. Science is as valuable today for declaring the glory of God as it ever was in the days of the wise men looking for Bethlehem. And it is only a danger to those who decide to worship it.
But the people of God have other signs as well, signs that unbelievers cannot interpret but that will lead us to Bethlehem, by a more direct route. When God took us for His own people, He gave us other signs as well for our direction. He gave us Himself, He gave us His word. There are Moses and the Prophets in written form on the one hand, there was Jesus coming in the flesh, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and consciences on the other.
I am using the different kinds of signs, the star and the angels, to represent science and faith. And just as I don’t see any conflict between following the star and following the angels, I do not see any conflict between science and faith. I love them both. Let each one follow the signs that God has given him to see. The wise men could never have seen those angels that came to the shepherds, and the shepherds could never care about some strange star. But both of them followed the light they had to the one necessary place. Let not the one despise the other.
The science of this world, works marvelously well, giving us a depth of vision into the creation and a power over it that was unimaginable even when I was born. The science of this world gives us both calendar and compasses that map out the world we live in. The star that is science can tell us the practicality of things, how to grow more food and stay warmer in winter and go places very very fast if we want to. The angels of faith does not tell us such things. The angel tells us how to live righteously, it turns our consciences to the right path. The star of science can tell us when our soil is selenium deficient and what selenium is; the angel of faith can tell us when our soul is compassion deficient and what compassion is. But science does not give us a moral compass, and faith does not give us space travel.
We make two mistakes about the signs God has given us. On the one hand, we can think that our signs are less important than the world’s signs, that the angels aren’t as good or reliable as the star. It is what we do when we try to find some scientific way this or that miracle could have happened. That’s what we do so often in sermons about the wise men, trying to figure out which star it was they followed, what combination of astronomical events led them to Bethlehem. I know a little about stars now and I can tell you plainly, none of the stars in astronomy classes are what they saw. I don’t know what they did see, and I don’t think we can find it, and I don’t think we should waste time trying to make the wise men’s star more respectable by giving it a scientific explanation. What they saw in the sky does not matter. Where it led them matters a great deal.
Or we could make a mistake that their signs don’t count, that the star is not as reliable as the angels. That is what we do when we make fun of the theory of evolution or poke at scientific studies we don’t understand. Remember, the children of this age are wiser in their own generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8)
God does not give signs so that we can look at them. He gives us signs to point to what we ought to look at. Don’t get all tangled up trying to decode the book of Revelation and end times prophecies and when the rapture will happen. The point of all the signs, star or angels, is to get us to Bethlehem. Signs don’t matter. It is where they point that matters, If they do not make you listen more closely to God then you have used them wrongly. He has always and only wanted one thing, that we should know Him, that we should go to Bethlehem. From Genesis 1:14 on, whether in science or in faith, everything He does is to get close to us. So be a wise man today and follow that star. Or be shepherd and follow the angels. Just get going.