Archive for seeking

Seeking with the Magi

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2016 by timtrue

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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Seeking Fulfillment

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on August 2, 2015 by timtrue

John 6:24-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps your faith is utilitarian.

A few weeks ago I mentioned a friend of mine who serves as a sort of missionary in Mexico: a consultant mainly to rural pastors and their congregations.  He tells of a curious problem confronting many of these rural pastors; a problem posed by—of all places—Muslim mosques.

Money is scarce in rural Mexico, as you know.  But kids there like gadgets just as much as kids here do.  And there’s also Wal-Mart.  So, the mosques know all this, and they put this all together; and since they can afford it they buy lots of kids’ bicycles from Wal-Mart.  And then they advertise: Come to our mosque and we’ll give your kid a bicycle.

And you know what?  It’s working.  Families are coming to mosques in remarkable numbers.  And they’re not filling the pews of the local churches; leaving the rural pastors to ask my missionary friend, “What’s to be done?”

Now, my point for today is that this is a picture of a very utilitarian approach to faith.  Whether you attend a mosque, a synagogue, a church, or any other house of worship, is your main question, “What’s in it for me?”

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps yours is an expedient faith.

To illustrate what I mean by an expedient faith, recall with me the toppling of the Iron Curtain; or, more specifically, the events leading up to the toppling of the Wall.  Christian churches in the Eastern Block were growing in courage, speaking out against the evils of the Marxist regime that had reigned over them far too long.  And, like a wave, the Christian voice grew and gained momentum until finally it crested and whole nations suddenly found themselves free.

Why was the Christian voice able to strengthen at this time?  In large part because of the sheer numbers of people who flocked to churches—in order to be a part of this political movement!  By and large, these people saw an opportunity for political liberation through the church—theirs was a politically expedient faith—as evidenced by the large numbers of people who left these churches shortly after the Wall fell.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Perhaps, like the people of today’s Gospel, yours is a faith that looks for signs and wonders.

This is the approach of the so-called Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.  The message is, if only you have enough faith Jesus will heal you, or grant you special gifts of the Spirit—the ability to heal or speak in tongues, for example.  The so-called Prosperity Gospel is rooted here too: If only you have enough faith, it promises, God will bless you with wealth.

But did you catch Jesus’ response to the crowd in today’s Gospel?  “Show us another sign!” they beckoned; to which Jesus said, “I am the only sign you need; I am the bread of heaven.”  You see, signs and wonders are like the bread we eat.  They fill us, but only for a little while; they don’t fulfill us always.  Only bread from heaven can do that.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Or—one more—perhaps yours is an intellectual faith.

Jesus wants us to love him with our heart, soul, strength, and MIND!  So, the intellectual person reasons, I must know all the ins and outs of doctrine; I must understand God; I must wrestle mentally until I am sure and certain of my faith.  And then I must argue with anyone who disagrees.

Or, if this person can’t come to a mental comprehension of God, he or she claims Atheism as the only reasonable belief system.

Where do you seek Jesus?

Now, with this question in mind, let’s look at today’s passage.

A first observation: the crowd, and arguably the disciples too, seeks Jesus in each of these ways:

  • In utility—they want more food;
  • In political expedience—elsewhere in John the crowd tries to make Jesus king, or political savior; an attempt which he rejects;
  • In signs and wonders—they ask Jesus for another miraculous feeding;
  • And in intellectual logic—they are realizing he’s not what they thought; so who, or what, is he?

But—a second observation—the very beginning of today’s passage betrays the crowd: Jesus was not found where they were seeking him.  They were looking for him where he had fed the five thousand.  But he and his disciples weren’t there, so they got in boats and went looking for him.  In other words, they were seeking Jesus in the wrong places.

So—a third observation—when they do find him, they ask a question with a characteristically Johannine double-meaning: “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

  • On a smaller, more immediate scale, this question betrays that Jesus was there in their midst all along, able to be found easily—if only they would look in the right places;
  • And on a larger, more cosmic scale, it betrays that the Incarnation has been in their midst for an unknown time and only now are they beginning to realize it.

So let’s return to our question: where do you seek Jesus? But let’s change it up a bit.  Instead of asking do, let’s ask should: Where should you seek Jesus?

You see, we’re a lot like the crowd.  We seek Jesus in the wrong places.  Yet all along he is right here in our midst.  But where?

Well, I just gave the answer: in our midst!

He’s here:

  • In the breaking of the bread;
  • In the Word read and preached;
  • And in prayer.

But he’s also right in the midst of our daily lives:

  • In loving and serving others, especially those with whom we interact most closely;
  • In the “aha! moments” of our children and grandchildren;
  • In the movies we watch, the books we read, and the music we listen to;
  • In the stories we tell each other around the dinner table;
  • In the very foods we eat, given to us by Christ himself.

The Incarnation, the bread of life, is always around us and before us.

Are we missing what’s right under our noses, distracted by our felt needs for utility, expediency, signs and wonders, and intellect?

We don’t have to comprehend everything.

This same Gospel, John, tells us that in the beginning was the Word, the full revelation of God.

Yet throughout this Gospel, Jesus, the full revelation of God, is difficult to understand.  Even the disciples are often left scratching their heads!

Far be it from me, then, to say this Gospel’s easy, that all your answers are to be found in three easy steps!

Rather, we don’t have to comprehend everything about Jesus.  Savoring the bread of life, throughout our lives, is a time-consuming process!

So—fine and well!—we seek him.

But let’s not seek him on our terms.  Instead, seek Jesus, the bread of life, on his terms: where he wills to be found.