One of my all-time favorite lines from the Old Testament readings for Advent comes up on the season’s third Monday. It’s a mysterious and mystical line and, in some ways, an aggravating one.
Nearly 1,200 years before the birth of Christ, the seer Balaam utters these words: “I see him though not now; I behold him, though not near: A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”
Balaam’s story is set in the time when the Israelites are beginning to settle the Promised Land. The many tribes already in residence there see them as a massive threat. Balak, leader of Moabites, is one of them. A superstitious man, he summons Balaam, who is known for some skill at divination, and demands that he curse Israel. Balak is sure that a curse would rout them. Balaam, meanwhile, is likely typical of his time in believing that there are many gods — and that they are engaged in constant competition. But he has heard from one whom he calls the Almighty, and this is the God of the Chosen People.
So he resists Balak, saying that he cannot possibly curse those whom God is protecting. He foresees light and power coming from these incoming tribes. Balaam’s saying is mystical because it is clear that he has been gifted with a vision of things that lie deep within and far ahead. He has had a revelation of what we Christians know to have been fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah.
The star overhangs the Christmas stories rendered by Luke and Matthew. The shepherds on the hillsides outside Bethlehem are surrounded by glory (a kind of heavy light) and angels. The magi are led by a star to Bethlehem.
Long before anyone conceived of a New Testament (or an Old one, for that matter), a man who has some prescience becomes an instrument of God and foresees an inexplicable plan. He declares gospel truth, though he cannot know when that star will arise.
For us, that is where some level of aggravation or impatience may come in. We believe in another coming of Christ. All of creation will be called back to God. We know that over the centuries people have periodically been sure that some prophetic figure has nailed down the date of the Second Coming.
Not so many years ago there were bumper stickers in Bluffton and billboards in Jacksonboro announcing the date of the end time in May. Much to the dismay of those who were hoping they had an edge when it came to Judgment Day, nothing special happened.
Announcing that one knows when the Day of the Lord is coming is rather like saying one will get a great view of what Manhattan will look like in 2420 A.D. when one is going through a toll booth on the Jersey Turnpike in Burlington or gazing across the Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut, this New Year’s Day. It is quite hard to claim to foresee the future when we have to admit that we cannot even perceive the present reality.
Yet in another way we can see. We have heard. We know that the Revealer is trustworthy. Christ has come, is truly with us, and will come again. That’s good reason to keep the Christmas star always in our hearts.