Today is the 12th day of Christmas. Do you know what that means?
If you said twelve drummers drumming, you’d be half right. For most of us, when we think of the 12 days of Christmas, we think of the song of the same name. Partridges, turtle doves, French hens, and the whole kit and kaboodle. But it’s more than just a song. It’s also an important period of time in the Christian calendar, and over the centuries, much of the meaning about it has been lost. For one thing, the 12 days of Christmas refers to the period BEGINNING with Christmas Day rather than ending with it as most people think. The 12 days of Christmas refers to the period BEGINNING with Christmas Day rather than ending with it. It’s a period called Christmastime and bridges the gap between Christmas Day and the celebration of the Epiphany which is another significant holy day in the Christian calendar that has lost much of its meaning. It used to be one of the most celebrated days of the year. In fact, it was considered one of the big three – Easter, Pentecost, and the Epiphany. Christmas Day really marked the beginning of the Christmas season that culminated in the Epiphany. Today most Christians don’t even know what it means. But the Epiphany is the day when Christ was first revealed to the Gentiles. It’s a huge event because it meant that God was working in the world to bring salvation not just to the Jews but to the entire world. But how did all that unfold?
Epiphany is the day when the magi arrived to honor the Christ child.
Again, most people believe that the magi arrived on Christmas Day but in fact it wasn’t until 12 days later that they completed their journey. We hear about it in the Gospel of Matthew, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Matthew 2:1-2 and then we’ll skip ahead to read verses 9-12. So would you please go to Matthew 2 beginning with verse 1. There’s a lot about the traditional nativity scene that just isn’t true. Most have three kings kneeling down in front of the Christ child with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And while these were the gifts given to honor Jesus, nowhere in the Bible does it say there were only three people there or that they were kings. In fact, in Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity and World Religions, he writes that these magi were actually Zoroastrian priests – followers of a completely different faith who believed that the stars revealed certain truths about the universe. One of these truths was the revelation that Jesus was born. When the star appeared to them, they followed it and found the Christ child. Let us hear from Matthew how this event took place. If you would please rise as we share from the Word of God, we’ll be reading from Matthew 2:1-2 and then 9-12. Hear now the Word of God.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Herod upon hearing this, became frightened because he believed like most other Jews, that the savior would come and take control of Israel. That would mean Herod and his family would lose power if this child ever came to claim the throne. Fearful for his crown, Herod secretly met with the magi and sent them to Bethlehem to search for the Christ child, with every intent of killing this possible threat. The story continues.
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.” Please be seated.
This is the event that the Epiphany celebrates – the revelation of Christ to the rest of the world.
And the reason this is so significant is that it proves God’s intention to include ALL of humanity in his plan for salvation. Before this, it was widely thought that the savior prophesied about in Scripture was coming for the Jewish people only, to lift them up and raise them to be a mighty power in the world, but this event in the life of Jesus showed that God was working to bring even those outside of Judaism to faith in Christ. Jesus’ offer of salvation was always meant to be for the entire world. Jesus’ offer of salvation was always meant to be for the entire world. What was most amazing about this story though is that God didn’t bring these Zoroastrian priests to Christ DESPITE their faith in another religion, but THROUGH another religion. God didn’t bring these Zoroastrian priests to Christ DESPITE their faith but THROUGH their faith. God tells us in our faith not to rely on things like astrology. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses tells the people of Israel, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…” Yet, God uses the priests belief in astrology to bring them to Jesus. Why the dichotomy? Why have these different standards? It’s the difference between people who claim to believe in Christ and those who don’t yet know him, because to those who profess faith in God, to put your faith in these other things is to serve two masters, to not truly put your trust in him. But to those outside the faith, God attempts to help those seeking his truth in whatever way they can understand. The key is the search for truth – the search for God in the world. Those who seek God will find him. Those who choose not to seek God or who willfully deny God won’t.
If God reveals himself to all who seek him, then why are there so many different religions?
Do they all point to the same God? Is there really no “truth” claim to Christianity? Christians have long wrestled with this question, trying to discern meaning in the texts we have, in the letters that were written, and in our own understanding of God. Although there are as many variations of this as there are in everything, Hamilton sums up the three different positions we find in Christianity as these – the pluralist, the exclusivist, and the inclusivist. The pluralist, the exclusivist, and the inclusivist. The pluralist believes that all roads lead to God. The different religions we have are simply different manifestations of God’s work in the world and all are equally valid. This is the “your God / my God” view. Your God is good for you and my God is good for me. But the pluralist view is too simplistic. It means I don’t have to test my beliefs and you don’t have to test yours. It acquiesces to the truth in favor of comfort. Because if you look at most of the world’s religions, they are exclusive in nature. You can’t claim all beliefs are true if most of those beliefs state that only their interpretation of truth is valid, or if you have conflicting and exclusive ideas about the truth. If one faith believes there is an afterlife and one believes in reincarnation, they can’t both be true. Obviously there is a truth out there. God may be working to reveal that truth to us through different people, but regardless there is only one truth. I might believe UCLA is the better school, and others might believe USC is the better school, and although we might agree to disagree, only one of us is right. That would be me. It’s one thing to say that God works through all people of different religious faith. It’s another to say they are all equally true. We can be loving and tolerant and still be bold in our claim about Christ.
The exclusivist can sometimes be bold to a fault.
The exclusivist believes that only one path leads to God and they have defined “path” as being those consistent with Christian beliefs. The verse we shared this morning is one often cited to prove that this way of interpreting God’s work in the world is true. Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And those who take this stance believe that to mean that only faith in Christ and full acceptance of him as Lord and Savior will get you into Heaven. All others are condemned to Hell. We might be willing to let people off the hook who are unable to make a profession of faith – often the “guy born in sub-Sahara Africa” gets mentioned. We might even be willing to let children off the hook who are not intellectually able to comprehend what it means to accept Christ, although some exclusivist viewpoints don’t even do that. But this one is harder to reconcile with the “loving God” view of God’s character. It’s hard to believe that God is that narrow-minded. It’s hard to accept that God would condemn a child just because they didn’t live long enough to understand what it meant to have a profession of faith. I don’t know many adults who understand fully what that means, but somehow God would condemn children to eternity in Hell?
The path that stands in the middle is the inclusivist.
The inclusivist believes that God’s full revelation to humanity came in Jesus Christ, but that God continues to work in the world through people of all faiths if someone honestly seeks to understand him. And to seek him doesn’t mean you have to know the God of the Christian faith, but that you seek to know the creator of all things. That when you open yourself up to God, he can work in and through you to bring you closer to him and to form you in his image. An inclusivist does believe that God made himself known to us through Jesus so that all other claims of “truth” are measured against what we know of Jesus, his work, his life, and what he taught. But we don’t deny that God can work through other people. Inclusivists however are not universalists – they don’t necessarily believe all people will be saved. But as Hamilton puts it, “Rather they believe that God examines the hearts of people of other faiths; that God sees their true faith in him; and, as was the case with Abraham, that God credits this faith to them as righteousness.” Getting into Heaven is more than saying some words out loud. It’s about living a life of grace and love as Christ did. This view offers grace to those who can’t accept Christianity because they have been taught a narrow-minded, closed-hearted view of God’s love and they know there is more to it than that. This view offers grace to those who felt rejected by the people of the church even though they wanted desperately to know God. And this view offers grace to those who have been abused and hurt by people claiming to be righteous Christians – including pastors and priests. Not all of us are lucky enough to have felt the love and grace of God through the doors of the church. It’s hard to imagine that God would accept the person who claims to be Christian but never develops his faith, never studies God’s Word, never joins a community of believers, but would reject the person who shows the love and grace of Christ every day of their life but who was unfortunate enough to have been stopped short in their pursuit of God for one reason or another.
Do all roads point to God? No. Does everyone get in just because? No.
But ultimately I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for all who earnestly seek him. Some of the wisest words I ever heard came from my pastor at my home church, Dr. Harvey West. He was leading our Bible study class and we came across the topic of salvation and someone asked him, “How do you know when you’re saved?” And his response was, “I don’t.” We were all shocked, because Harvey is the most saintly man you can meet. Not a harsh word or a rude gesture could we imagine coming from him. If HE didn’t know, we were sunk. But then he said this, “But I have faith that God knows my heart and that my willingness to follow Christ and lead Christ-like life honors him and that will be enough. I leave the work of salvation to God and focus on leading the life I believe will honor God the most.” The Epiphany is about God’s continual work in the world. It is a testimony to the character of God, that God is constantly seeking us and will work in and through whatever circumstance we are in to find us and bring us to him. But it does take work and it does take a willing heart. To quote the X-Files, “The Truth is out there.” And that truth lies in the love of God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.