In the Name...
Mark Twain said he once put a dog and a cat together in a cage to see if they could get along. They did. So he put a bird, a pig and a goat together and, after a few adjustments, they got along too. Then he invited a Baptist, a Presbyterian, and a Catholic to dinner and all hell broke loose.
Well, one cold morning three African palm fruit farmers were sitting by a fire. Two of them got into in a debate comparing their religions. The oldest farmer sat quietly listening to the debate. Suddenly, the two turned to him and asked, “What do you think? Which religion is the best one?” The old man rubbed his beard and said thoughtfully, “Well, there are three ways to get from here to the oil mill. You can go right over the hill. You can go around the hill on the right. Or you can go around the hill on the left. But, when you get there, the mill man doesn’t ask you how you came. All he asks is, ‘Man, how good is your fruit?’”
In the stories of Jesus’ birth, two groups of people are especially named as coming to visit the new-born babe - the shepherds and the magi – the wise men. Now, the church doesn't do a lot to commemorate the visit of the shepherds, beyond the odd Christmas carol, but, the visit of the magi is given a special feast we call the "epiphany", the "appearing", the eye-opening, if you will. Have you ever wondered why? It's because the visit of the magi is a real eye-opener.
The shepherds learned of the birth of Jesus through what we call a direct revelation, an army of angels appearing in the midnight sky, a supernatural event. And most of us have no problem with that. We accept that God sends angels to His people and makes miracles.
The magi, on the other hand, learned of the birth of Jesus by observing a star. Now, this star was nothing supernatural. No choirs of angels singing "Peace on earth" accompanied it. The magi were pagan astrologers, people who read the future by studying the movements of the stars and planets. They were not Jews or men of faith. And yet they were led to Jesus by practicing their pagan religion.
If we realize that, then we can see how the visit of the magi is, indeed, a real eye-opener and a challenge to some popular opinions.
Like the palm fruit farmers, religious people of all varieties tend to think that their tradition is the only way to God. When some Christians hear, “I am the way.” they seem to think that means the way of their particular denomination. Even the more generous minded, who are willing to include the whole of the Christian spectrum, balk at the idea that God would reveal Himself to non-Christians on their own terms. And yet that's what He did with the Wise Men. He didn't dazzle them with a miracle. He caught their attention with His creation.
So, ironically, the word of God itself, as found in the Bible, cautions us against trying to put God in a box.
Notice, in the Nativity story, how different people came to know that the Son of God was born. The magi we've mentioned, from outside Israel and outside the Jewish view of salvation. Then, there were the shepherds. And, yes, they were Jews, but, they had a problem. Shepherds were regarded as ipso facto unclean - one small social step from lepers. Mostly illiterate and often mentally challenged, they couldn't read the Scriptures and so couldn't follow the Law. Regarded with suspicion because of their lifestyle, they were treated much as gypsies. They could not own land or give evidence in court. They were not even allowed to worship at the Temple without undergoing a special purification. So, being fully Jewish didn't mean they were fully accepted.
And then there was a third group, a third group whom we might have overlooked because they're not represented in the manger scene - King Herod’s Bible scholars. They came to know that Messiah was born because they knew their Scriptures.
So, I’ve mentioned stars, visions, and scriptures - all different ways of getting to the palm oil mill. Now, there is a trap in front of us. Am I about to say it doesn't matter what you believe - all religions are equal? No. No, I am not.
Notice how Matthew says that when the magi got to Jerusalem the light of the star failed and the magi had to consult the scriptures to direct them to Bethlehem. Their wisdom only took them so far, but, to reach their destination they had to rely on God's revealed Word.
Yes, the magi came as pagans. They worshipped as pagans. And they went back home as pagans. The shepherds arrived unclean, worshipped as unclean, and went back to their fields unclean. But, in both cases, their worship was acceptable to God and an indictment of the ones who did not come and worship - the Bible experts.
Have you ever been bothered by that? Not one of the scholars who could quote the prophecies offered to accompany the magi on the short trip to Bethlehem. Why? Because the Jewish scholars, even though they possessed the shining light of revelation, did not follow it. They did not walk in the light of the Word and so they missed the Light of the World.
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus marvelled at the Jews' refusal to act on what they knew.
They knew that the Messiah would come with signs and wonders, but, they criticized every miracle he performed. They knew that the highest place of honour in the kingdom would be for those who served others, but, they still fought for the place of honour at their own tables. They knew that the coming kingdom would liberate the oppressed and powerless, but, they still hoarded their wealth and trampled on the poor. The Jews simply refused to act upon what they knew and what they saw.
The people who knew the Bible best failed to find Jesus, but the nature worshippers did. The magi did not possess the truth, but, it is not the possession of the truth that matters. It's how one uses it. It is better to have the dim light of the stars and follow that than to have the bright light of the scriptures and neglect it.
It's not that all roads lead to heaven. It's not that all religions are equally valid. It's that there is only one God, and all who seek Him with a sincere heart are led to Him. That is the lesson of Christmas and Epiphany and that is the challenging truth in the story of the pagans who sought and found our Lord. Our Lord.
We’re here today because we have sought and found and come to worship, but, how many people fail to find Jesus because they think they don't need to? Nearly 90% of Americans identify themselves as Christians but more than half don’t belong to a church. Every year they hear the Christmas story and read about the journey of the men who followed a star. A beautiful story, but, is it theirs? Are they willing to seek the Lord, or just be content to know he exists?
We may ask God to bring them an epiphany, an eye-opening, but, as a Russian archbishop once said, “It is pointless to ask God to do something which we are not prepared to do ourselves.” That’s where it falls to us to use what we know and lead them to their Lord. Their Lord and ours.
In the Name…