And lo, a star shone in the East
Once upon a time, or so the story goes, in a land far away, lived a nation of people very different from us. Their appearance was different, as were their customs and clothing. They had no idea of the one true God. Among the wealthy of this nation was an elite group of star-gazers, those who watched the sky every evening for omens and portends, and who sold their conclusions to whoever would pay for their “words of wisdom,” gathered from the very stars.
They were in fact fortunetellers, employed as advisors to the king, to various officers of government and to traders who needed to know not only weather details, but also political climates and safe routes for their wares. The Bible calls them Magi, members of the school of Hermes Trismegistus.
One night, at least one of their number gazing heavenward noticed a new constellation, a star so bright it was dazzling to the naked eye. Quickly he consulted with trusted colleagues and together they watched the star, suspended like a diamond beneath the velvet sky. In haste they pulled from containers documents that spoke of a star such as this, and they found that it was an omen announcing the reign of a new king.
Quickly they made their plans. They simply had to discover what person this might be whose star now dominated the evening sky. To their employers their reasons for an absence from their positions seemed ridiculous — grown men tracking the source of a star! Yet for just three of the Magi, the call to seek out the truth overrode all other concerns.
A camel train was assembled, and with as much care and preparation as they devoted to their pronouncements the Magi each chose a gift for this new king. One chose gold, one decided on frankincense, and the third on myrrh.
After traveling for some considerable time, and interviewing even the King of the Jews, Herod, their journey took them to a stable in Bethlehem where, according to the holy books kept by Herod’s advisors, such a king would be born. And there before their eyes they beheld him, God incarnate — of that there was no doubt in their minds. So they presented him with their gifts and took their leave, returning to their own land by a different route. Such a long journey, taken by three men who sought the truth.
Yes, Jesus assures us, all who truly seek will indeed find.
The Philippian jailer converted
The history of the early Christian church as recorded in the Book of Acts recounts another story — this time of a jailer who, when a violent earthquake flung open every door of the prison under his charge and shook loose the chains of the prisoners, prepared to kill himself. (Acts 16:25-40)
Yet even as the jailer drew his sword, the voice of Paul reached him, assuring him that not one person had taken advantage of this unexpected freedom. The jailer was as shaken by this fact as were the Magi by the appearance of the new constellation in the sky, and like them he was filled with a burning desire to know why.
Leading his prisoners outside to comparative safety he asked the question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And to him was given the answer which remains unchanged even today: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and then you will be saved, you and your household.”
The pages of history are full of those who held sincere beliefs that have since been disproven. The Earth does not rest on the back of a giant turtle, nor is it flat. The sun and other stars do not revolve around the Earth, and the printing press was not invented by the devil. So many have died who dared challenge beliefs such as these; so many endured weeks of torture for it.
Works versus faith in the Book of James
So how can we be sure that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved? What do we mean when we claim to believe? In the letter of James written to the displaced Jews, we hear his argument on work (or words) versus faith. Note: He does not claim that we are damned by our sinful natures, but rather that we find forgiveness through our belief in Christ. What he then presses home is the need for those who claim to know Jesus intimately to demonstrate God’s love in their own lives.
It is very easy for one to claim to be a believer; however, the proof is in the life transformed by the Holy Spirit. All those who seek Jesus, who hunger for more than “religion” can provide, will find in God the answer to all those needs and hungers. But the moment we demand “works” as proof of one’s salvation, it’s by self-indulgence that we substitute ourselves for God, thus seizing the position of the judge of humanity.
For instance, how would any who are afflicted by paralysis such as every muscle is affected — and who in seeking find their Creator and healer — qualify as Christians? With no voice to pray or praise, no hands to clap, no legs to run and jump for joy — but a heart and mind fully cognizant and fully immersed in Christ. No “works” to speak of, yet equally welcomed as any other beloved, forgiven and redeemed child of God.
James goes on to link the faith and actions of those such as Abraham and Rahab as examples to his readers. Yet Rahab was a prostitute, and nowhere do we find any priest or prophet of Israel demanding she change her profession before she is acceptable to God.
Nowhere in Scripture do we hear Jesus insist that anyone change their sexual orientation before they are acceptable to God.
To the adulterous woman he suggests she “sin no more” — and the simple fact is that if she were caught again in an adulterous liaison, he would not be able to save her. It was her life he was protecting, not her relationship with God.
LGBTQ+ Christians misunderstood as outsiders
Like the Magi, members of the LGBTQ+ community are often perceived as different. Sometimes we dress differently, our music and literature are our own — and those who sit in moral judgement have treated us as outsiders, just as those three astrologers were by the Jewish social and religious community of Jesus’ time. Yet just as their earnest search was rewarded when they encountered God incarnate, so we who seek to bring our vulnerabilities and imperfections to our Maker may be assured that it is by God’s grace we are accepted.
It is our actions of seeking and of believing that enable God to reopen the channels of spiritual nourishment for which our spirits have been starved — for God never forces any to return. It is the Holy Spirit who accomplishes any changes in our hearts and lives. Those who place conditions or barriers between our Savior and us deny the miracles of God’s grace and love. Let us hear again Christ’s words:
I solemnly assure you that all who hear what I have to say and believe in the one who sent me have eternal life. Such persons do not have to face judgement; for they have already passed from death into life. (John 5:24)
What does it mean to believe?
It means to reach out and grasp the hand of God in faith; for it is as we continue to trust God that we discover the face of God in even the most mundane and boring tasks in life.
It is to see Love’s smile in the faces of those we meet.
It is to allow God to stretch us far beyond all we previously believed was possible and to transform our narrow days into wide vistas of opportunity and service.
It is to say, as night wraps its folds of darkness around us, our prayer of thanks for another day spent in the very presence of God.
It is to discover life, more tremendous and vibrant than any poet or painter could express.
It is to sense in each today a little of the eternal life that awaits us beyond heaven’s door.
It is to know without a shadow of doubt that just on the other side of death’s doorway, all who believe in Jesus will be reunited with God.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.