Sermon: Haphazard by Starlight

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at

Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 7th January 2024

Matthew 2: 1-23

You can watch the whole service on YouTube


How do you feel about the idea of depending upon starlight to light you on your way?

I can’t say it that fills me with confidence. Imagine trying to find your way around North Shields town centre at night if you only had starlight to guide you. Or consider what it would be like to trek across Northumbrian countryside with only stars to light your way.

It sounds like a hazardous enterprise to me, something well-described by the title of an Advent book written some years ago by the author and poet Janet Morley: ‘Haphazard by Starlight.’[1] That sums up the magi’s journey for me: haphazard by starlight.

The light we receive from stars is limited, despite the fact that they are blazing suns, not unlike our own sun which lights our days, and which is the origin of reflected moonlight. These stars, however, are for us just pinpoints of light in a vast, vast, deeply dark sky.

We human beings observe the stars and draw conclusions about them and about the universe. The stars don’t speak; human beings speak about the stars: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage,’ say Eastern visitors to Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. (2:2)

The stars themselves remain silent. There’s a lot of truth in that phrase in the carol, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ when it says that ‘the silent stars go by.’  (R&S 145) More recently, the American Lutheran educator, preacher, social activist, and hymn writer, Herman G. Stuempfle Jr picks up on that silence in the first verse of a hymn[2]:

1 The silent stars shine down on us
with bright but sightless eye,
Unmindful of our little earth,
of us who live and die …

Which leads him to ask,

Are we but grains of stranded sand
beside a cosmic sea
That lie unvalued and unseen
in such immensity?

That’s a sobering thought. We might be unvalued, unseen tiny creatures in the immensity of a universe of myriad, myriad silent stars.

The good news, though, is that this is not the case. Instead, the God of the universe, the creator of all those stars, speaks though a star, and in doing so demonstrates that we are not left unvalued and unseen. Instead, God sees each and every one of us, and values us all; so much so as to speak a ‘Word’ that breaks through the silences of stars in space.

To quote Herman Stuempfle once more:

2 Creator of all stars you came
to grace our transient race.
In Christ you spoke a word that broke
the silences of space.
Still through that word you call our hearts
to know that we are known,
To trust we do not walk through time
unvalued and alone.

Stars themselves do not speak, but God might. God can and does choose to speak through a star, demonstrating through the associated, identified birth of Jesus Christ how we are known to and loved by God: ‘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.’ (2:9)

And in the story of that star we are invited to respond, as the wise ones responded, in coming to Jesus:

3 We see the star the wise men saw
and hope again is stirred.
We track the footprints left in time
by your incarnate Word.

But not just travelling to Jesus, an infant child in a house in Bethlehem (2:11), but also to the adult Jesus, the one who goes to the cross, so confronting and dealing with the reality of evil and violence in the world, on this occasion exemplified by King Herod’s murderous attempts to eliminate the new ‘king of the Jews.’

As Herman Stuempfle puts it,

We see them climb a lonely hill
where Love is left to die –
The Love that formed the farthest star
and hears the faintest cry.

Or to quote another hymn writer, Graham Kendrick, says, ‘hands that flung stars into space [are] to cruel nails surrendered.’ (R&S 522)

In the final verse of his hymn Herman Stuempfle takes things one step further. Echoing the imagery in the Book of Revelation 22:16, Christ himself is portrayed as God’s star, speaking across the universe:

O Christ, the bright and morning Star
whose radiance does not fade,
Whose glory filled the universe
before the planets played:
Come, heal our hearts of blinding doubt
till faith shall end in sight.
Shine down upon our darkened earth
and conquer sin’s long night.

Christ, who is the star of all creation, is also the one who comes to heal each and every one of us, and to heal this whole world; a world that daily produces slaughters of innocents on a scale vastly greater than that perpetrated by King Herod at Bethlehem.

Travelling haphazardly by God’s starlight might not seem an appealing project to you or me. After all, we’re people used to the bright lights of electricity. If we’re caught in darkness or gloom many or most of us have recourse to a torch carried within our mobile phones. It’s counterintuitive to us to think of travelling by starlight alone, never mind contemplating the possibility that the stars might speak to us.

That said, the adventures of these eastern travellers, coming to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, before heading home ‘by another road’ (2:12) suggest that we would do well to pay attention to the stars. They show us of the scale of the divine, of a God greater even than a universe full of stars, because this same God created, creates and sustains all of it.

Though, lest we feel lost in the midst of such immensity, remember the Gospel story concerning one special star. It proclaims that tiny as we may be in the midst of the universe, God loves us. Yes, God values us, enough to come to be with us in Jesus Christ – baby, child and adult. And through him we both encounter God’s love, and are saved by it.

The future is uncertain. None of us knows what the days, months and year ahead holds for us. When we try to see what’s ahead it’s as if we travel haphazardly by starlight. If we are wise, though, we’ll look to Jesus, God’s bright and morning star, for guidance, for reassurance, and for strength for the journey ahead. Yes, we’ll take one more lesson from those wise travellers: having followed their star, upon entering the house, brought him gifts, and ‘paid him homage.’ (12)

And so we pray: O God, you who scattered the stars throughout space, and sustains them day by day, speak to us we pray, and lead us, like the magi, to Jesus, so that we might offer our gifts and pay him homage every day of our lives. Amen.

[1] Janet Morley Haphazard by Starlight: a Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany. SPCK, 2013.

[2] ‘The Silent Stars Shine Down On Us’ by  Herman G. Stuempfle Jr (1923-2007) © GIA Publications Inc.  TUNE: KINGSFOLD Melody from English Country Songs, 1893, harmonised by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Harmonisation © from The English Hymnal, 1906, Oxford University Press.

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