Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 23

The Star in the East

Preached January 6, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” - Matthew 2:1,2.

Our subject is the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. The King of the Jews has become the Sovereign of the world: a fact, one would think, which must cause a secret complacency in the heart of all Jews. For that which is most deeply working in modern life and thought is the mind of Christ. His name has passed over our institutions, and much more has His spirit penetrated into our social and domestic existence. In other words, a Hebrew mind is now, and has been for centuries, ruling Europe.

But the Gospel which He proclaimed was not limited to the Hebrews: it was a Gospel for the nations. By the death of Christ, God has struck His death-blow at the root of the hereditary principle. “We be the seed of Abraham” was the proud pretension of the Israelite; and he was told by Christ’s Gospel that spiritual dignity rests not upon spiritual descent, but upon spiritual character. New tribes were adopted into the Christian union, and it became clear that there was no distinction of race in the spiritual family. The Jewish rite of circumcision - a symbol of exclusiveness, cutting off one nation from all others - was exchanged for Baptism, the symbol of universality, proclaiming the nearness of all to God, His paternity over the human race, and the Sonship of all who chose to claim their privileges.

This was a Gospel for the world, and nation after nation accepted it. Churches were formed; the kingdom which is the domain of love grew; the Roman Empire crumbled into fragments; but every fragment was found pregnant with life. It brake not as some ancient temple might break, its broken pieces lying in lifeless ruin, overgrown with weeds: rather as one of those mysterious animals break, of which, if you rend them asunder, every separate portion forms itself into a new and complete existence. Rome gave way; but every portion became a Christian kingdom, alive with the mind of Christ, and developing the Christian idea after its own peculiar nature.

The portion of Scripture selected for the text and for the gospel of the day has an important bearing on this great Epiphany. The “wise men” belonged to a creed of very hoary and venerable antiquity; a system, too, which had in it the elements of strong vitality. For seven centuries after, the Mohammedan sword scarcely availed to extirpate it - indeed could not. They whom the Mohammedan called fireworshippers clung to their creed with vigor and indestructible tenacity, in spite of all his efforts.

Here then, in this act of homage to the Messiah, were the representatives of the highest then existing influences of the world, doing homage to the Lord of a mightier influence, and reverently bending before the dawn of the Star of a new and brighter Day. It was the first distinct turning of the Gentile mind to Christ; the first instinctive craving after a something higher than Gentilism could ever satisfy.

In this light our thoughts arrange themselves thus:


I. The expectation of the Gentiles.

II. The Manifestation or Epiphany.


I. The expectation: “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen His star in the cast, and are come to worship Him.”

Observe - 1. The craving for eternal life. The “wise men” were “Magians,” that is, Persian priests. The name, however, was extended to all the Eastern philosophers who professed that religion, or even that philosophy. The Magians were chiefly distinguished by being worshippers of the stars, or students of astronomy.

Now astronomy is a science which arises from man’s need of religion; other sciences spring out of wants bounded by this life. For instance, anatomy presupposes disease. There would be no prying into our animal frame, no anatomy, were there not a malady to stimulate the inquiry. Navigation arises from the necessity of traversing the seas to appropriate the produce of other countries. Charts, and maps, and soundings are made, because of a felt earthly want. But in astronomy the first impulse of mankind came not from the craving of the intellect, but from the necessities of the soul.

If you search down into the constitution of your being till you come to the lowest deep of all, underlying all other wants you will find a craving for what is infinite - a something that desires perfection - a wish that nothing but the thought of that which is eternal can satisfy. To the untutored mind nowhere was that want so called into consciousness, perhaps, as beneath the mighty skies of the East. Serene and beautiful are the nights in Persia, and many a wise man in earlier days, full of deep thoughts, went out into the fields like Isaac to meditate at eventide. God has so made us that the very act of looking up produces in us perceptions of the sublime. And then those skies in their calm depths mirroring that which is boundless in space and illimitable in time, with a silence profound as death and a motion gliding on forever, as if symbolizing eternity of life, no wonder if men associated with them their highest thoughts, and conceived them to be the home of Deity - no wonder if an Eternal Destiny seemed to sit enthroned there - no wonder if they seemed to have in their mystic motion an invisible sympathy with human life and its mysterious destinies - no wonder if he who could read best their laws was reckoned best able to interpret the duties of this life, and all that connects man with that which is invisible - no wonder if, in those devout days of young thought, science was only another name for religion, and the Priest of the great temple of the universe was also the Priest in the temple made with hands. Astronomy was the religion of the world’s youth.

The Magians were led by the star to Christ; their astronomy was the very pathway to their Saviour.

Upon this I make one or two remarks.

1. The folly of depreciating human wisdom. Of all vanities, the worst is the vanity of ignorance. It is common enough to hear learning decried, as if it were an opposite of religion. If that means that science is not religion, and that the man who can calculate the motions of the stars may never have bowed his soul to Christ, it contains a truth. But if it means, as it often does, that learning is a positive incumbrance and hindrance to religion, then it is as much as to say that the God of nature is not the God of grace; that the more on study the Creator’s works, the farther you remove from Himself: nay, we must go farther to be consistent, and hold, as most uncultivated and rude nations do, that the state of idiocy is nearest to that of inspiration.

There are expressions of St. Paul often quoted as sanctioning this idea. He tells his converts to beware “lest any man spoil you through philosophy.” Whereupon we take for granted that modern philosophy is a kind of antagonist to Christianity. This is one instance out of many of the way in which an ambiguous word misunderstood becomes the source of infinite error. Let us hear St. Paul. He bids Timothy “beware of profane and old wives’ fables.” He speaks of “endless genealogies” - “worshipping of angels” - “intruding into those things which men have not seen.” This was the philosophy of those days: a system of wild fancies spun out of the brain - somewhat like what we might now call demonolatry: but as different from philosophy as any two things can differ

They forget, too, another thing. Philosophy has become Christian; science has knelt to Christ. There is a deep significance in that homage of the Magians. For it in fact was but a specimen and type of that which science has been doing ever since. The mind of Christ has not only entered into the Temple, and made it the house of prayer, it has entered into the temple of science, and purified the spirit of philosophy. This is its spirit now, as, expounded by its chief interpreter, “Man, the interpreter of Nature, knows nothing, and can do nothing, except that which Nature teaches him.” What is this but science bending before the Child, becoming childlike, and, instead of projecting its own fancies upon God’s world, listening reverently to hear what It has to teach him? In a similar spirit, too, spoke the greatest of philosophers, in words quoted in every child’s book: “I am but a child, picking up pebbles on the shore of the great sea of truth.”

Oh, be sure all the universe tells of Christ and leads to Christ. Rightly those ancient Magians deemed, in believing that God was worshipped truly in that august temple. The stars preach the mind of Christ. Not as of old, when a mystic star guided their feet to Bethlehem, but now, to the mind of the astronomer, they tell of eternal order and harmony; they speak of changeless law, where no caprice reigns. You may calculate the star’s return: and to the day, and hour, and minute it will be there. This is the fidelity of God. These mute masses obey the law impressed upon them by their Creator’s hand , unconsciously: and that law is the law of their own nature. To understand the laws of our nature, and consciously and reverently to obey them, that is the mind of Christ, the sublimest spirit of the Gospel.

I remark again - This universe may be studied in an irreverent spirit. In Dan. ii. 48, we find the reverence which was paid to science. Daniel among the Chaldees was made chief of the wise men; that is, the first of the Magians: and King Nebuchadnezzar bowed before him, with incense and oblations. In later days we find that spirit changed. Another king, Herod, commands the wise men to use their science for the purpose of letting him know where the Child was. In earlier times they honored the priest of Nature: in later times they made use of him.

Only by a few is science studied now in the sublime and reverent spirit of old days. A vulgar demand for utility has taken the place of that lowly prostration with which the world listened to the discoveries of truth. The discovery of some new and mighty agent, by which the east and west are brought together in a moment, awakens chiefly the emotion of delight in us that correspondence and travelling will be quickened. The merchant congratulates himself upon the speedier arrival of the news which will give him the start of his rivals, and enable him to outrace his competitors in the competition of wealth. Yet what is this but the utilitarian spirit of Herod, seeing nothing more solemn in a mysterious star than the means whereby be might crush his supposed rival?

There is a spirit which believes that “godliness is gain,” and aims at being godly for the sake of advantage - which is honest, because honesty is the best policy - which says, Do right, and you will be the better, that is, the richer for it. There is a spirit which seeks for wisdom simply as a means to an earthly end - and that often a mean one. This is a spirit rebuked by the nobler reverence of the earlier days of Magianism. Knowledge for its own pure sake. God for His own sake. Truth for the sake of truth. This was the reason for which, in earlier days, men read the aspect of the heavens.

2. Next, in this craving of the Gentiles we meet with traces of the yearning of the human soul for light. The Magian system was called the system of light about seven centuries before Christ. A great reformer (Zoroaster) had appeared, who either restored the system to its purity, or created out of it a new system. He said that light is eternal - that the Lord of the universe is light; but because there was an eternal light, there was also an eternal possibility of the absence of light. Light and darkness, therefore, were the eternal principles of the universe - not equal principles, but one the negation of the other. He taught that the soul of man needs light - a light external to itself as well as in itself. As the eye can not see in darkness, and is useless, so is there a capacity in the soul for light; but it is not itself light; it needs the Everlasting light from outside itself

Hence the stars became worshipped as the symbols of this light. But by degrees these stars began to stand in the place of the light Himself. This was the state of things in the days of these Magians.

Magianism was now midway between its glory and its decline. For its glory we must go back to the days of Daniel, when a monarch felt it his privilege to do honor to the priest of Light - when that priest was the sole medium of communication between Deity and man, and through him alone “Oromasdes” made his revelations known - when the law given by the Magian, revealed by the eternal stars, was “the law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not.” For its lowest degradation we must pass over about half a century from the time we are now considering till we find ourselves in Samaria, in the presence of Simon the Magian. He gave himself out for the great power of God. He prostituted such powers and knowledge as he possessed to the object of making gain. Half dupe, half impostor, in him the noble system of Light had sunk to petty charlatanism: Magianism had degenerated into Magic.

Midway between these two periods, or rather nearer to the latter, stood the Magian of the text. There is a time in the history of every superstition when it is respectable, even deserving reverence, when men believed it - when it is in fact associated with the highest feelings that are in man, and the channel even for God’s manifestation to the soul. And there is a time when it becomes less and less credible, when clearer science is superseding its pretensions: and then is the period in which one class of men like Simon keep up the imposture - the priests who will not let the old superstition die, but go on, half impostors, half deceived by the strong delusion wherewith they believe their own lie - another class, like Herod, the wise men of the world, who patronize it for their own purposes, and make use of it as an engine of state - another still, who turn from side to side, feeling with horror the old, and all that they held dear, crumbling away beneath them: the ancient lights going out, more than half suspecting the falsehood of all the rest, and with an earnestness amounting almost to agony, leaving their own homes and inquiring for fresh light.

Such was the posture of these Magians. You can not enter into their questions or sympathize with their wants unless you realize all this. For that desire for light is one of the most impassioned of our nobler natures. That noble prayer of the ancient world (en de faei kai olesson), “Give light, and let us die:” can we not feel it? Light - light. Oh, if the result were the immediate realization of the old fable, and the blasting of the daring spirit in the moment of revelation of its God, yet give us light. The wish for light, the expectation of the manifestation of God, is the mystery which lies beneath the history of the whole ancient world.


II. The Epiphany itself.

First, they found a king. There is something very significant in the fact of that king being discovered as a child. The royal child was the answer to their desires. There are two kinds of monarchy, rule or command. One is that of hereditary title; the other is that of Divine Right. There are kings of men’s making, and kings of God’s making. The secret of that command which men obey involuntarily is submission of the ruler himself to law. And this is the secret of the royalty of the humanity of Christ. No principle through all His life is more striking, none characterizes it so peculiarly, as His submission to another will. “I came not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me.” “The words which I speak, I speak not of myself.” His commands are not arbitrary. They are not laws given on authority only, they are the eternal laws of our humanity, to which He himself submitted: obedience to which alone can make our being attain its end. This is the secret of His kingship - - “He became obedient . . . wherefore God also bath highly exalted Him.” And this is the secret of all influence and all command. Obedience to a law above you subjugates minds to you who never would have yielded to mere will. “Rule thyself, thou rulest all.”

2. Next, observe the adoration of the Magians - very touching, and full of deep truth. The wisest of the world bending before the Child. Remember the history of Magianism. It began with awe, entering into this world beneath the serene skies of the East; in wonder and worship. It passed into priestcraft and skepticism. It ended in wonder and adoration as it had begun: only with a truer and nobler meaning.

This is but a representation of human life. “ Heaven lies around us in our infancy.” The child looks on this world of God’s as one, not many - all beautiful - wonderful - God’s - the creation of a Father’s hand. The man dissects, breaks it into fragments - loses love and worship in speculation and reasoning - becomes more manly, more independent, and less irradiated with a sense of the presence of the Lord of all; till at last, after many a devious wandering, if he be one whom the Star of God is leading blind by a way be knows not, he begins to see all as one again, and God in all. Back comes the child-like spirit once more in the Christianity of old age, We kneel before the Child - we feel that to adore is greater than to reason - that to love, and worship, and believe, bring the soul nearer heaven than scientific analysis. The Child is nearer God than we.

And this, too, is One of the deep sayings of Christ - “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

3. Lastly - In that Epiphany we have to remark the Magians’ joy. They had seen the star in the east. They followed it - it seemed to go out in dim obscurity. They went about inquiring: asked Herod, who could tell them nothing: asked the scribes, who only gave them a vague direction. At last the star shone out once more, clear before them in their path. “ When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Perhaps the hearts of some of us can interpret that. There are some who have seen the star that shone in earlier days go out; quench itself in black vapors or sour smoke. There are some who have followed many a star that turned out to. be but an ignis fatuus - one of those bright exhalations which hover over marshes and church-yards, and only lead to the chambers of the dead, or the cold damp pits of disappointment: and oh, the blessing of “exceeding joy,” after following in vain - after inquiring of the great men and learning nothing - of the religious men and finding little - to see the star at last resting over “the place where the young Child lies” - after groping the way alone, to see the star stand still -to find that Religion is a thing far simpler than we thought - that God is near us - that to kneel and adore is the noblest posture of the soul. For, whoever will follow with fidelity his own star, God will guide him aright. He spoke to the Magians by the star; to the shepherds by the melody of the heavenly host; to Joseph by a dream; to Simeon by an inward revelation. “Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh “these, and ten times these, were poor and cheap to give for that blessed certainty that the star of God is on before us.

Two practical hints in conclusion.

1. A hint of immortality. That star is now looking down on the wise men’s graves; and if there be no life to come, then this is the confusion: that mass of inert matter is pursuing its way through space, and the minds that watched it calculated its movements, were led by it through aspiring wishes to holy adorations; those minds, more precious than a thousand stars, have dropped out of God’s universe. And then God cares for mere material masses more than for spirits, which are the emanation and copy of Himself. Impossible! “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” God is the Father of our spirits. Eternity and immeasurableness belong to Thought alone. You may measure the cycles of that star by years and miles: can you bring any measurement which belongs to time or space, by which you can compute the length or breadth or the duration of one pure thought, one aspiration, one moment of love? This is eternity. Nothing but thought can be immortal.

2. Learn, finally, the truth of the Epiphany by heart. To the Jew it chiefly meant that the Gentile too could become the child of God. But to us; is that doctrine obsolete? Nay, it requires to be reiterated in this age as much as in any other. There is a spirit in all our hearts whereby we would monopolize God, conceiving of Him as an unapproachable Being; whereby we may terrify other men outside our own pale, instead of as the Father that is near to all, whom we may approach, and whom to adore is blessedness.

This is our Judaism: we do not believe in the Epiphany. We do not believe that God is the Father of the world - we do not actually credit that He has a star for the Persian priest, and celestial melody for the Hebrew shepherd, and an unsyllabled voice for all the humble and inquiring spirits in His world. Therefore remember Christ has broken down the middle wall of partition; He has revealed God as Our Father; proclaimed that there is no distinction in the spiritual family, and established a real Brotherhood on earth.