Written in the stars?

Sermon at St James, Advent 4, 19 December 2021

Micah 5:2–5a

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

They say that it is written in the stars. Your life is written in the stars. Is it? Can we know what is going to happen to us in the future? There have always, of course, been some people who have consulted fortune tellers, soothsayers and astrology charts to try to discover whether there is a tall, handsome stranger round the corner waiting for them or, heaven forbid, a nasty accident. They carefully read the page devoted to their stars in magazines and some newspapers. There’s a true story of one new editor of one of our tabloids who decided that there was no room for a column in his paper with a prediction under each star sign. So he decided to sack the journalist whose job it was. His letter of dismissal began like this: “Dear Smith, As you will already be aware, I am dismissing you ...”. It showed his cynicism.

Are we cynical in that way? Are we open to the idea that the future is mapped out but hidden from our eyes, written in the stars?

There is a fundamental difficulty, if we do, and that difficulty is to do with our belief that we have free will. If you and I are free to decide whether to get married and to whom; if we are free to go for a walk or not go for a walk when we might get hit by a falling tree, how can our future be known?

Forecasting is, as we know, notoriously difficult. The Meteorological Office can just about manage three or four days of weather and our top scientists are having to work very hard to predict the future course of this wretched pandemic, even with the very best data and computers.

Well, the Bible certainly has promoted the role of the prophet and it is a highly mysterious one. We had a most exceptional biblical prophecy this morning as our first lesson. This is the bare bones of it:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah in Judah….from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days…and he shall be the one of peace.

It was written under the name of Micah and was certainly written at least 700 years before Christ. Micah had been protesting about the corruption and hypocrisy of Israel’s rulers (nothing new there then!) and saying that out of the present distress will come salvation and a saviour will come from Bethlehem Ephrathah. He is being very precise. There were two Bethlehems – one in Zebulun and one in Ephrathah – so he makes sure we know which one. Scholars think that this saying was like a proverb passed from generation to generation, an oracle known by many so that when the wise men enquired of where the Messiah was expected they were told “Bethlehem in Judah.”

So when we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Saturday we should be aware that it had been long expected and prophesied by Micah 700 years before.

Now if this was the only prophecy we could perhaps dismiss it as a coincidence but it is not the only one. There are dozens more, some say hundreds more, prophecies of Jesus the Messiah. Here are some of them:

It was prophesied that the Messiah would be a descendant of David; that he would heal the blind, the deaf and the lame; that he would speak in parables; that he would come in triumph on an ass; that he would be betrayed by a friend and the price of his betrayal would be 30 pieces of silver; that he would be a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; that they would pierce his hands and his feet long before crucifixion was known and that they would divide his garments among them. There are many more such prophecies.

All of these prophecies were pronounced between 500 and 700 years before Christ – extraordinary isn’t it?

We must also remember that Jesus saw himself as the fulfilment of the prophets’ work. At the beginning of his ministry he went to the synagogue at Nazareth and read a lesson from Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… and then adds “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”

So when we celebrate the birth of Jesus next Saturday we should remember that it came at a pivotal point, a climax after hundreds of years of prophecy and it raises many questions about whether the future is predictable. And, if it is predictable, there is another prophecy that we should bring to mind, and that is that Jesus will come again, a second coming. Another mystery.

Lots of questions here about whether the future is knowable and not many answers.