Monday, December 28, 2009

Spiritual But Not Religious

To extend Christmas a little longer, my wife and I attended the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at the Opry House on Saturday. The show was well done with great staging, music, and choreography. The finale was the adoration of the Christ Child with shepherds and Wise Men present. It was beautifully done but the show’s producers followed the typical approach of taking great liberty with Matthew’s account about the visitors from the east.

Matthew’s gospel tells us about the coming of magi (probably Zoroastrian priests) to worship the Christ child. They were both astrologers and astronomers who connected happenings in the heavens to those on earth and vice versa. Given their interchange with a very troubled King Herod and the fact that they found the child and his family in a house, their visit would have been at least two years after Jesus’ birth, so they would not have been present at the manger.

The interesting thing about this story is that Matthew includes it at all. The gospel writer has a great concern in the book to show how Jesus’ coming was the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Throughout his account, he shows that Jesus is of the lineage of David, the one who came to bring in the Kingdom of God, and the Anointed One of God. But he seems to be stretching a bit when he includes a group of star-gazing gentiles in his story. When he contrasts the worship of these pagans with the terror and disbelief on the part of Herod and his advisors, the reader is certainly expected to identify with the gentiles rather than the Jewish leaders.

By including the account, Matthew pursues another theme that carries throughout the book, God’s desire that all nations, not just the nation of Israel, may be blessed through the Son of God. Matthew’s radical message is that Jesus came for all of humankind.

As I think about the wise men (and they were surely all men), I am reminded of the many in our day who proclaim themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This generally means, “I am interested in spiritual things but I am not part of a faith community and certainly would not have anything to do with a Christian church!” Matthew embraces the spiritual commitment of the wise men and uses it as a means to attest to the universal appeal of Jesus. There is no indication that these foreign religious leaders became “born again” believers, but their spiritual insight is certainly highlighted. Although the Jews rejected divination (including astrology), the gospel writer grasps the spark of truth attested to by these gentiles and affirms it.

Perhaps the lesson for believers today is to meet unbelievers where they are. If they manifest a spark of truth, let us encourage it rather than extinguish it by rushing to unload more than they need at this point in their spiritual pilgrimage. If we try to dump the whole load of orthodoxy on these seekers, they will be overwhelmed.

Matthew reminds us that God is already at work in the larger world and God invites us to join in that work.

1 comment:

David C. George said...

Good words as we move toward Epiphany, on January 6, the showing forth of the light to the nations. This is the point of missions emphasis for liturgical churches. We Baptists have Lottie Moon, a woman, instead of the three wise men, and we do missions emphasis before Christmas.