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Other Stars, Other Mages


Old Testament Reading: Numbers 24:15-19

New Testament Reading: Matthew 2:1-12


The 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 two preachers.

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 business.                                                     

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!

The Episcopalian 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 Jesus?

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 7:17).

"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 of heart.

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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