Seeking with the Magi

Matthew 2:1-12

I used to be a Calvinist.

Is anyone here a Calvinist, or willing to admit it anyway?  Anyone here know a Calvinist personally?  Well, now you can all say you know someone who once claimed to be a Calvinist.

Whatever the case, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Calvinism.

Calvinism—you may or may not know—holds to more extreme views in a lot of ways than Jean Calvin himself held.  But that’s the way it often is with isms: a founding father espouses radical ideas in their own right; but it’s his followers that carry these ideas out to their logical conclusions.

So, after Jean Calvin died, his ideas were read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested by Dutch Protestants, in Holland.  And tulips grow in the land of the Dutch Protestants.  So that’s how we know Calvinism: through the tulip: spelled T-U-L-I-P.

T is for Total Depravity.  Calvinism teaches that everyone is totally depraved from birth.  And by this Calvinists don’t mean that little babies are crawling around tagging buildings with spray paint on a rival gang’s turf and selling drugs.  It’s not total depravity—mayhem, chaos—being acted out in every possible way.  Rather, we have all been born with sin affecting all our faculties.  We are so utterly depraved—even as cute, roly-poly, helpless infants—that there is nothing we can do on our own merit to save ourselves from our depravity.

U is for Unconditional Election.  If we are fortunate enough to be saved from our own depravity, Calvinists say, it is only through God’s own sovereign election.  There is nothing we can do about it, one way or another; salvation is not based on some condition, like, “If you pray the sinner’s prayer, then God will save you.”  Only God saves—or not.  We merely hope and pray that we are one of the elect—or not.

L is for Limited Atonement.  Christ’s death on the cross atoned for the sins of many, so the argument goes, but not for all.  The “many” he atoned for are the elect.  The “not all” includes everyone else, the not-elect—which is really just another word for the damned.  So, merely out of his own good pleasure, God predestines some people to spend eternity with him in heaven.  But what does this mean for everyone else?  Just that everyone else is predestined to spend eternity in hell, that’s all.  And, because of their total depravity, God is blameless in the whole exchange.

I is for Irresistible Grace.  Calvinism says that God will save all the people he has predestined to save; and he will save them through a call that is irresistible.  There is an old adage: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”  According to Calvinism, however, God will lead the elect person to living water; and, quite like a puppet, the elect person will have no choice but to drink.

And P is for Perseverance of the Saints.  Those whom God calls—all of the truly faithful—will persevere until the end.  Which is really a good loophole for those who fall away from the faith, isn’t it?  George fell into sin.  Well, no matter, he must never have been saved in the first place; for if he were truly saved, he would have stayed the course—he’d have persevered.

So then, I used to be a Calvinist.  But not anymore.  At its logical conclusion—for me anyway—Calvinism makes God out to be a harsh taskmaster; leaving me fearful, wanting to take my talents and bury them in the dirt.

But Jesus Christ is a God of love, not fear.

Now, when I first read about Emeth, I was still a Calvinist.

Emeth is a Calormene—a man from the made-up land of Calormen—in C. S. Lewis’s final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle.

In Calormen, the men traditionally wear turbans, grow long beards, and smell of onions and garlic.  The god they worship is named Tash.  Their capital city is called Tashbaan.

On the other hand, the Narnians’ culture is identifiably western.

Is it just coincidence that the Calormenes share many things in common with Muslims?

I don’t think so.

Muslim author Imran Ahmad doesn’t think so either.  Infatuated with the Chronicles as a boy, he writes about the tension he felt:

But there was an aspect of Lewis’s world which caused me great discomfort. The enemies of Narnia were from a country called Calormen, and we learned more about them as we progressed through the books—especially The Horse And His Boy. These people looked unmistakably like Saracens—medieval Muslims; the Narnians themselves looked like Crusaders. In wanting to identify with the characters, I was torn between a natural desire to be on the side of “good” with the white English children and a feeling that I was condemned to be in the other camp, the Calormenes, the darkies from Calormen . . . with their curved swords and spicy food and unmistakable Islamic cultural symbolism.[i]

Anyway, when I first read about Emeth, I was still a Calvinist.

After the final battle of Narnia has ended and all our heroes have passed through the doorway out of the shadowlands and into the glories of eternity, amazingly, Emeth is there too.

But Emeth is a Muslim, I protested!  In my Calvinistic mind, there was no way he could have been predestined.  There was no way he should be in heaven, with me!

But I was a Calvinist.  I didn’t like the idea that a Muslim could find Jesus Christ through authentically seeking Allah.

(Can you imagine?  There I was, in my thirty-something year-old mind, telling my little girls, to whom I was reading this story for the first time, that, no, Mr. Lewis had gotten this one wrong; that I knew better!)

But what does the story of the Magi demonstrate?

We know less about the Magi than we care to admit.  Tradition says there are three of them.  But the Bible doesn’t say this.  All the Bible says is that wise men came from the East.  Men is plural.  There could have been two; there could have been forty.  We assume three probably because there were three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh.

But what we do know—what the Gospel does tell us—is that they came from another part of the world, the East.  They were not Jewish.  They were Gentiles.  And arguably the very first disciples of Christ!

What we also know is that they were readers of the sky.  They’d come to Jerusalem following a star by which, somehow, they discerned a child had been born King of the Jews.  Key here, by the way, is sky, not scriptures.  They had come seeking Christ by what Jews would have considered a method outside the box.

But that’s it!  That’s all the Gospel says.

Were there three Magi?  We don’t know.

Were their names Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar?  Very probably not.  But we don’t know for sure!

Did they have a copy of the Jewish scriptures, left behind after the ancient Babylonian king had forced the Jews into exile?  We don’t know.

But what we do know is that they’d followed a star, the light of Christ.  With what little means they had, they’d sought Christ authentically; and they’d found him.

And thus the story of the Magi seems to align more with Emeth than it does with Calvinism.

The story of the Magi shows us that, regardless of where they come from, authentic seekers find Christ.  And by “where they come from” I don’t mean just the literal meaning, their geographical location.  It includes the figurative meaning too, their religion.

So, on this day of Epiphany, 2016, in our religiously and racially charged culture, we are left with a couple questions to ponder:

The first is a collection of questions, really.  But they all get at the same thing:

  • Can Muslims find the way, the truth, and the life through the Koran?
  • Can Buddhists find Christ through the pursuit of enlightenment?
  • Can Hindus through yoga?
  • Or—for that matter, and maybe hitting a little closer to home for us here in Yuma—can Mormons find the true light of Christ through the Book of Mormon?

This story of the Magi suggests so.  For in this story, authentic seekers find Christ regardless of geographical location or even religion.

But a second—and much more important—question is this: what about you?  Are you seeking Christ authentically?

Maybe so.  Maybe you are as eager to reflect the light of Christ today as the Magi were to find it in the days of old.  If so, yea and amen!

But maybe you’re feeling more like I felt when I was still a Calvinist.  Maybe your religion has become burdensome for you, like some harsh taskmaster leaving you feeling like you should just go bury your talents in the dirt.

If so, learn from the Magi.  Set aside all your judgment, all your desire to be right all the time, all your desire to know everything—to know what is better left in the realm of mystery—and, with the Magi of old, come and worship Christ, the newborn King.

[i] Quoted from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/imran-ahmad/narnia_b_1400025.html

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