Does God Guide Seekers from Other Religions?
Matthew 2:1-12, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, January 5, 2014, Epiphany Sunday
By the time Augustine preached his sermon on Epiphany in the year 412, he could say that “the whole Church of the Gentiles has adopted this day as a feast worthy of most devout celebration.” He refers to the Gentiles—the non-Jews—because the event celebrated on Epiphany is the coming of the nations to Christ. The word “epiphany” means a revealing, and what the church was celebrating was that God had chosen to reveal himself not only to Jews but to people of all nations. Augustine was celebrating that he himself and all the people of North Africa and Europe had become recipients of God’s mercy. As the text we read from Ephesians says, God revealed his secret plan which was hidden for all of history until this time: that his plan all along has been to include every nation in salvation, to reveal himself to all peoples, and make us all part of one new humanity in Jesus the Messiah.
We are so accustomed to seeing the story of the Magi as a charming little story of devotion to Jesus that we miss how shocking it is for Matthew to include these characters in the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s hard for us to separate the original Magi in our minds from all the cute kids we’ve seen in bathrobes or ad hoc costumes, with various kinds of homemade crowns on their heads. Heck, it’s even hard for us to put out of our minds that hymn we sang, We Three Kings. You probably know on some level that Matthew says nothing about kings—that’s made to go with the prophecy from Isaiah 60, about foreign kings coming to Jerusalem—and Matthew says nothing about “three.” There’s no number in the gospel, and certainly not the names of three men who are then assigned three different nations. That tradition developed centuries later.
What Matthew is talking about is a group of undetermined size of Magi, practitioners of the religion of Zoroastrianism from Persia, which we now call Iran. These priestly Iranians were well-known as experts in astrology, and they come saying that their astrological charts and observations have led them to believe that the Jewish Messiah was being born. That is strange for a lot of reasons. Why were Gentiles even interested in the Jewish Messiah? And how would they know anything about when he would be born? But even stranger are the theological implications, especially in the gospel regarded as the most “Jewish” of the gospels, with lots of citations from the Hebrew scriptures.
Matthew seems to be saying that the God of Israel has revealed himself to people who are not only outside the ethnic nation of Israel but who are believers in another religion. Beyond that, he is saying that God somehow used that other religion’s knowledge to lead people to Christ. And the tool these people used to gain knowledge—astrology, stargazing—is explicitly forbidden in the Hebrew scriptures. Jews are supposed to stay away from astrologers just as they are to stay away from witches and sorcerers, and here Matthew is saying that astrologers learned about the birth of the Messiah before any of the faithful Jewish teachers did.
Matthew’s subversive message seems to be that God can speak outside authorized channels. God can speak to people we consider taboo. God can speak to people of other religions. Maybe you are so liberal that this comes as no surprise to you, but I can tell you that to the Jews of Matthew’s day and to most Christians today those ideas are considered dangerous, and even heretical. Of course, Matthew is not a liberal of the “all roads lead up the same mountain” variety. His whole point is that all the people of the earth are coming to worship Jesus—a foretaste of what will happen as God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. His point here is not that God speaks through all the religions—although he might not argue against that conclusion. His point is that God uses all the religions to point to Jesus. God uses the stars to point to Jesus. God uses contemporary science—some would say astrology was as advanced a science as existed at the time—to point to Jesus.
Many of the Baptists I grew up with thought that God spoke only through the Bible and in no other way. Most fundamentalists today become nervous if you say that God spoke to you through the Holy Spirit, or through a still small voice, or through a book not written by a fundamentalist—or any other way than through the Bible. The idea is that God has revealed all that he ever needs to reveal—all we could ever need to know—in the 66 books of scripture, and then revelation stopped. What’s left is not listening to God or looking for revelation, but scholarship and preaching only.
But how can you repeat the story or sing the song about three heathen priests following a star to Jesus without admitting that God speaks through the created world? God spoke through this one star, at least. Personally, I think the horoscopes that appear on the comics page are really stupid, and you are idiotic to use them as advice, but who can say that God does not speak through the movement of the stars in a way that can be discerned? You couldn’t say that on the basis of Matthew, certainly. You’d have to say the opposite.
Augustine began his sermon on Epiphany 412 with the point that “Our world is not bereft of God’s presence.” God leaves hints and signs everywhere. In Acts 14:16-17, Paul says to the people who would worship him as Mercury and Barnabas as Jupiter that “in times past God allowed all nations to walk in their own ways, but God has not left himself without witnesses.” He says in Romans 1:20 that “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen.” In that incredible sermon Paul gives on Mars Hill in Athens to the philosophers (in Acts 17), he begins by saying that the “heathen” idol he saw that was inscribed “to the unknown God” was a sign that they were seeking to worship the true God without knowing his name. He goes on to note that their own philosophers have correctly said that “In him we live and move and have our being” and that “We are his offspring.” Of course, Paul does not stop by endorsing the religion of Athens. He starts with the assumption that God has revealed something about himself to all peoples, and then moves to say, as Jews always have, that God cannot be contained in statues of gold or stone—which his hearers would no doubt accept. But then he goes on to say that the time has come for all people to turn to the true God who has appointed Jesus as the judge and ruler by raising him from the dead. As you may recall, that’s where he loses his audience.
Often the Christian attitude toward other faiths—both the historic ones and new ones—has been that they are utterly misguided. Because they do not understand or accept Jesus as one with God, some of us assume that these religions or philosophies are demonic counterfeits, all illusion. They are seen as a threat to the true faith, an enemy. But against that view we have this story of the Magi, whose religion led them to Jesus, but without using any of the tools of traditional Jewish faith, without using the Bible. What Matthew suggests to me is that God can find a way to use any religion to lead people to the truth of who God is and even to the truth of Jesus. If God can use astrology, how can I say that he cannot use Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism to lead people to Christ? How can I be so sure that he cannot somehow use the loose panentheism and mysticism of my poetry friends to lead them ultimately to Christ? Does this mean that I myself should not bear witness to Christ? Absolutely not. God uses the stars and all nature, and the wisdom of seekers, and he uses us. In fact, Jesus says that we are the primary witnesses because we know how God has revealed himself most clearly: in a human person.
Here is what one Christian in India said to the hermits and spiritual men of his own culture: “Surely your longings and feelings arise from the God who created you. They were created in order to be fulfilled, not crushed. Surely we shall find peace not by eliminating desire, but by finding its fulfillment and satisfaction in the One who created it.”
The man who said that was Sundar Singh, who after he converted to Christianity led his whole life as a Sadhu, a holy man in the Hindu style, wearing a robe and wandering penniless from village to village. He is often referred to as Sadhu Sundar Singh. He disappeared in the Himalayas in 1929, presumed dead. It’s a shame that he is not better known today, because his life has so much to say about how we relate to people of other faiths.
Singh was born into a Sikh family, which you may have guessed if you know that all Sikhs take the last name Singh. His mother, though, taught him the Hindu holy texts and his father sent him to a Presbyterian school where he thought he could get a better education. Sundar’s mother died when he was a teenager. He no longer finds the same satisfaction in his mother’s scriptures. Words of Sikh gurus whirled in his mind: “I cannot live for a moment without you, O God. When I have you, I have everything. You are the treasure of my heart” [Guru Nanak]; “We long only for you, O God. We thirst for you. We can only find rest and peace in you” [Guru Arjim]. And yet Sundar could not find peace. His own sadhu in the jungle could not help him. He began to act out. One day in school his teachers talked about the holiness of the Bible, the Christian scriptures. Sundar mocked them and took a Bible and tore it apart and threw it into a fire. All the students were shocked. The teachers reported him to his father, who though he is a Sikh could not believe that his son would treat any religion’s scripture with such disrespect. He was filled with shame.
Sundar got up at 3:00 in the morning. He said that if God did not reveal himself by morning, he would end his life. He prepared to lay his head on the railroad track and wait for the 5:00 am train to come. At 4:30 he saw a glow coming from his house. He thought the house might be on fire. But the glow came from his room, so he knelt as was his custom and prayed there. In the strange light, he made out a figure, familiar but yet unknown. It was not Shiva or Krishna or any other Hindu incarnation. Then he heard a voice speaking in Urdu: “Sundar, how long will you mock me? I have come to save you because you have prayed to find the way of truth. Why then don’t you accept it?” It was then, he says, “I saw the marks of blood on his hands and feet and knew that it was Yesu, the one proclaimed by the Christians. In amazement I fell at his feet.” When he told his father and his classmates, all hell broke loose. The school even had to be closed because of their outrage. Sundar was rejected forever by his father. But he spent the rest of his life, sleeping, as he did that first night, outdoors, living the life of a sadhu and owning nothing.
Sadhu Sundar Singh once said “I know of a woman who, when she was twelve, was told by her teacher about God and his love. It was the first time she had ever heard of God, yet as her teacher spoke, she said, “Yes, I have known this already. I just did not know his name.” Singh taught that we should never call anyone heathen. We must love them and treat them as seekers. Let me read you just one of his parables:
God never discourages a seeker by judging his or her beliefs to be wrong. Rather, God allows each person to recognize spiritual error or truth by degrees. The story is told of a poor grass cutter who found a beautiful stone in the jungle. He had often heard of people finding valuable diamonds and thought this must be one. He took it to a jeweler and showed it to him with delight. Being a kind and sympathetic man, the jeweler knew that if he bluntly told the grass cutter that his stone was worthless glass, the man would either refuse to believe it or else fall into a state of depression. So instead, the jeweler offered the grass cutter some work in his shop so that he might become better acquainted with precious stones and their value.
Meanwhile, the man kept his stone safely locked away in a strongbox. Several weeks later, the jeweler encouraged the man to bring out his own stone and examine it. As soon as he took it out of the chest and looked at it more closely, he immediately saw that it was worthless. His disappointment was great, but he went to the jeweler and said: “I thank you that you did nopt destroy my hope but aided me instead to see my mistake on my own. If you will have me, I will stay with you and faithfully serve you, as you are a good and kind master.
We are all seekers, following whatever light we have. We hope others will come to understand what is of real value, but they have to discover it for themselves. Singh said, “The Wise Men followed the star to Bethlehem. But when they reached Bethlehem, they no longer needed the star, for they had found the Master, the sun of righteousness. When the sun rises, the stars lose their radiance.” Epiphany reminds us that God has never left himself without witness, that God finds ways to reveal himself, even by the stars. Christ did not come for one nation or for one religion, but for the whole world. Whether they understand it or not, Christ is, as the Wesley hymn reminds us, the “dear desire of every nation, the joy of every longing heart.”
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