The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 3, 2021
It is better to be far from God and striving to be close than to be close and yawning with indifference. It is better to put yourself out to know God more than to rest satisfied with how well you already do.
Even in their confusion and want of understanding, active seekers of God who know God but in part may bear a stronger witness to His wonder and glory than church attenders who make little effort in the pursuit of knowing Him. People who possess less understanding of God – pagans like the wise men and skeptics like Albert Camus – may give a more telling testimony to God’s greatness!
Camus, a Nobel Prize-winning author who advocated a thoroughly secular philosophy of life, started to attend the American Church in Paris just to hear Marcel Dupré play its organ. His attention was captured, however, by its summer pastor, Howard Mumma. Mumma’s sermons opened Camus’s mind to intriguing possibilities he’d never before seriously considered, and he made them seem plausible. The pastor and the famous atheist began to meet in secret to discuss whether the Christian faith was not just attractive, but true.
Camus confided to Mumma, “I’m seeking to fill the void I feel.” Though Camus kept trying to create meaning for his life, he kept experiencing it as empty, as if he were looking in the wrong place. He started to wonder whether his only hope lay in making contact with what he described as “the transcendent, something beyond this world”. He had heard Mumma speak of a personal God who desired to help everyone, and Camus decided to determine if that God were real.
In seeking the God whom he did not yet know was out there but whom he sensed might be, Camus witnessed to God’s worthiness – as did the wise men who, for all their unknowing, came looking for “the king of the Jews”.
The Bible tells us next to nothing about the wise men, but the majority of biblical scholars believe they were pagan astrologists from Persia. It is likely that they, like Camus, had come to sense something of God, at least enough to feel they wanted to know more about Him if possible. They studied the night sky to decipher messages from the realm of the transcendent.
The Persians attributed symbolic meaning to the planets and stars. Just a couple of years before Jesus’ birth, three celestial bodies – symbolically representing royalty, birth and Israel – came in such close conjunction as to appear to the naked eye to be a single star. These astrologers were so moved by what they read in the heavens that they felt compelled to assemble a caravan and travel 2400 miles across mountains and deserts to check it out.
They had received a revelation from the only direction in which they knew to look. Though the revelation was incomplete, they responded with a complete commitment to find out what it was about. The revelation disclosed so little that, upon arriving in Israel, they had no idea where to start their search. So they asked for guidance from the nation’s leaders and were informed of an ancient promise out of the Hebrew Scriptures that a king like no other would be born in a place called Bethlehem.
Though Herod had evil designs, the wise men with good will proceeded posthaste to Bethlehem. What they discovered there moved them to fall to their knees, worship a mere infant, and honor the Child by offering their most prized possessions. What were they sensing? What were they thinking? The Bible doesn’t give us any information, and the wise men soon leave its pages never to be heard from again. But this seems clear: They had felt an awed wonder and a rousing passion to pursue a mystery that had gripped their souls.
How could they have sought God with such vigor and dedication had they not already to some extent found God? And are they not, for all their ignorance and mistaken ideas, witnesses to the magnificence of the Incarnation? Is not their seeking after the truth with everything they had a testimony to the One who is the way, the truth and the life?
Some years ago, in the journal The American Scholar, a skeptic named Arthur Crystal, who prides himself on his principled suspension of judgment in the absence of proof, pondered why some very smart people believe. At the end of his article, he acknowledged that, in terms of appeal, Christianity wins hands down over atheism or agnosticism. It invites us to believe in a God who wants us to enjoy the everlasting splendor of heaven and who out of love paid a terrible cost to make it possible. Crystal also admitted it is disconcerting for a skeptic to hear honest people swear they experience God and to see their faces shine in worship as if those who did not take the risk of faith were missing out on a marvelous secret. Only a fool, he says, fails to wish their beliefs were true.
Most of the people we know don’t believe in Jesus and His love, but many would like to if they thought they could without losing their mind or integrity. Is it not possible that God has deployed us in their lives to bear a witness to them and to give them reasons to dare to open their eyes and see for themselves? Let us pray.