Stars, Other Mages
Testament Reading: Numbers 24:15-19
Testament Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
last two Epiphany sermons you have heard from this pulpit were, I think,
those of Pat Wickham and Chris Conroy, as both years my family and I were
in North Carolina. I hope I can measure up to the standard set by those
My theme this morning is
not so much the joyous affirmation enshrined in this text, that the King
of Christians, Jesus Christ, has been born. We have been celebrating that
for some weeks. Rather, I want to treat of a troubling question posed by
this text to Christian faith. It is a question put to me, without
reference to the passage, by Tony DeLorenzo a couple of weeks ago. And as
you know, I love the challenge of sermon suggestions.
First, let me note
briefly another question that troubles some readers of the story and which
has occasioned a good deal of controversy among Catholics and Protestants
for years. Raymond Brown wrote that in the 1950s the great theological
shibboleth put to Catholic scripture scholars was "Do you believe in the
Wise Men?" What was the trouble?
Well, as critical
scholars at least as far back as David Friedrich Strauss had known, the
story of the young hero's birth being heralded by a new star interpreted
by sacred savants, precipitating an attempt by a vengeful king to destroy
the holy infant was hardly unique. All or part of the same story had been
told of various heros and saints many times through history, most of them
before Matthew told it. The whole thing began to look less like history
and more like sacred legend. That's certainly the conclusion I draw, and
for me the sacred power of the story is much enhanced thereby.
But Tony's question
raised the problem of uniqueness in a completely different framework. Not
that of the past, but that of the future, even of the present.
If what the star and the magi heralded happened once, that is, the birth
of a world-prophet, a divine Incarnation, can this possibly happen again
in the future?
More intriguingly and
distressingly, has it perhaps already happened again since Jesus, and we
have missed it? And if it can happen again, if it has
happened again, what should be our attitude toward it? In my opinion this
question is far more important, and much more hangs upon our answer to it.
The question is, should
wise people be on the lookout for a new ascendant spiritual star in the
religious firmament? Can new Christs appear? There are, you know, several
remarkable individuals whose very existence presses the question upon us:
Meher Baba, Sathya Sai Baba, Sun Myung Moon, Da Free John, Baha'ullah. You
know what the historic Christian answer has been: they may be claimants to
new Christhood, but they are instead Antichrists, wolves seeking sly
entrance to the sheepfold where they have no
But that is not
necessarily the Christian response. In the gospels we not only read,
"False Christs and false prophets will arise," but we also read, "By their
fruits you shall know them." Suppose one of these would-be Messiahs, these
men who already are messiahs and avatars in the faith of many,
should manifest a truly Christlike Spirit with its unmistakable fruits?
Then to write them off
with impatient scorn would be to assume the role of the scribes who
sneered, "He hath Beelzebub!" Don't be too quick to risk blaspheming the
Holy Spirit by attributing his blessed work to his Opposite!
Modernist Leighton Parks once pointed out the irony of the defender of
orthodoxy who presses home inquisitorial questions like the one I
mentioned before ("Do you believe in the Wise Men, literally?"), trying to
prove what a heretic a Modernist or biblical critic is. Parks astutely
noted that such zealots of orthodoxy are perfectly aping those enemies of
Jesus who "sought to trap him in his words"! Should we have any trouble
recognizing that such is not the role for Christians to play?
But what is the
alternative? If we admit that, yes, quite possibly, So-&-so is another
like Jesus, are we duty bound to relegate Jesus to the status of some
outmoded "Old Testament" and follow his new successor? That is quite
likely what the followers of the new Christ will ask of us!
Could it be that the
Christian thing to do is to set another in the place we once reserved for
Before I give my answer
to that most intriguing question, let me ask if you are experiencing a
flash of deja vue. Haven't you seen this situation before?
Yes, of course you have! We as Christians, faced by the challenge of
credible new Christs, now find ourselves in just the situation Jews have
faced for two thousand years now.
We Christians have been
making a terrific nuisance of ourselves by insisting that our Jesus is a
Messiah superceding their religion and that they ought to recognize their
faith as a theological horse drawn carriage, leave it in the museum, and
hop in the car with us. ญญ
Is this what you think
Jews should do? Is this your theological position on the question of
Judaism and Christianity? I will venture to say that your answer to my
question of this morning, the question of our obligation to follow new
Christs, is already contained in your view of Judaism and Christianity.
You can simply take the view you have already developed on the one issue
and transfer it to the other. If the shoe fits, wear it.
If you think an old
revelation is superceded and made superfluous by a new one, then you think
Jews should become Christians. And if you are willing to admit that
Baha'is see in Baha'ullah what we have always seen in Jesus, then you
should convert to the Baha'i Faith.
But many of us have come
to believe that new revelations may spring up alongside the old,
and that both may remain valid, some more appropriate for some
cultures or individuals than others.
If the light that shone
in Israel was truly the light of God, it cannot have burned low, gone out.
But God struck a new torch for the Gentiles in the person of Jesus of
Nazareth, a revelation outside the Mosaic Covenant. The Prophet Muhammad
saw it just this way. Islam was a new revelation for the Arabs, who had
hitherto felt a gnawing famine of the Word of God.
Believing this, I also
believe that new torches have blazed forth in Baha'ullah and perhaps in
more recent avatars. They may well be new lights in the spiritual dome. I
certainly haven't the spiritual expertise to say otherwise. But
personally, as an individual moth, I am quite content to remain circling
the light of my world, Jesus Christ.
But some are not. Else
there would be no disciples of these new Christs. What moved them to
follow when I feel no such need? I don't know. Nor do I know why some Jews
followed Jesus and others didn't. I cannot say why some Jews convert to
Christianity today, though most don't. I don't pretend to know why some
find Christianity a lower form of consciousness and Buddhism a higher one.
All I know is that,
should you happen to be presented with the claims of some supposed new
Christ, some new Gospel, you owe it to the truth to give it a fair
hearing. What are you afraid of? Jesus didn't tell people to stop up their
ears! He said to listen and listen well! "Be ye wise money changers!" "By
their fruits shall ye know them!" Both sayings mean you must carefully
scrutinize what you hear. That's all he asked from his own hearers, after
all! "If any man's will is to do [God's] will, he shall know whether the
teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority" (John
"Be wise as serpents and
innocent as doves." That pretty well says it! Use critical intellect in
weighing the claims of the latest guru or savant, and have an open heart
of willingness to do the will of God whatever it may be. I have seen
Christians who are only as wise as serpents in their approach to the
claims of new Christs. For example, groups like the Spiritual Counterfeits
Project in California. They are pretty scholarly in their research, and
their reports on various gurus and yogis are always worth reading. But
they begin with their conclusion already firmly in mind: if they are not
Christians, the gurus must be quacks or Antichrists. There is no openness
But then the New Age
Movement would seem to be afloat with people who cannot match their
dove-like innocence with serpentine critical scrutiny. Thus they swallow
the most outrageous nonsense from every two-bit channeler that comes down
the pike. I think the wisdom of Jesus' approach is vindicated by the
results of both sides refusing to heed it.
But here I am in the
Christian pulpit after many years of questioning and reevaluation, a
continuing process, by the way, and on this Epiphany Sunday, let me say I
am quite willing to heed other spiritual novas. I don't mind making my way
to other mangers to pay my respects to other mages. But when I am done, I
will be returning home, right here.
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