From our service on January 3, 2021, a sermon by Pastor Eric Stetson. Watch video below.
This week, on January 6, Christians celebrate Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the Magi, or the “three wise men” from the East, to pay homage to the infant Jesus. The Magi were most likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia, who were seeking the fulfillment of a prophecy in their own religion for the coming of a messiah. As this example shows, we should be willing to look for truth wherever it can be found, even if it’s outside the boundaries of our own religion or culture.
We’re living in a dark time, when it’s especially important to seek for the light of truth. Just like in the time of Jesus, when the Jewish people were suffering under the yoke of Roman oppression, God wants to help us get through the difficult times we’re experiencing. In our case, it’s a pandemic and economic depression that has left millions of people fearing for their lives and their livelihood. In such times of sadness and loss, God wants to be found. Through our connection to a Higher Power, we can find the power within ourselves to get through the challenges and the struggles of a time when the world seems turned upside down.
As we go about the important business of seeking the Source, we should learn to be both open-minded and discerning. There are many religions, many philosophies of life, and many people claiming to be tapped into something from beyond this world. The Holy Spirit is accessible to everyone, but the spiritual world doesn’t speak with only one voice. Truth can be revealed to us in many forms, and it’s not always easy to distinguish the truths of God from the imaginations of our own mind or from other sources that are not fully divine.
I once knew a building contractor who said that God told him the apocalypse is coming soon, and that the only way we can survive is to start living underground in dwellings like hobbit holes. He was outwardly sane and maintained a successful business. Did he have a real prophetic revelation, or was it something else? Personally, I suspect he might have been eating too many mushrooms — and I don’t mean portobellos.
But I’ve also known Pentecostal preachers who have given “words of prophecy” that actually came true, and which they couldn’t have known beforehand would make any sense to the person to whom they were speaking. I, myself, had an experience in which an inner voice told me something very meaningful and statistically improbable to be random. A Google search convinced me that it wasn’t coming from my own mind.
One of the symptoms of Covid-19 is a loss of the sense of smell. I would argue that there’s another virus, of sorts, afflicting many people in modern times, causing them to become “soul blind” much in the way that coronavirus patients become “nose blind.” This virus is the ideology that nothing exists beyond this material world — that there is no God, no soul, no life after death, and no spiritual beings who can communicate with us. Atheists may argue that all spiritual experiences are the product of drugs or mental illness, but I know that can’t be a total explanation. Millions of other sane and drug-free people would agree with me, because of their own direct knowledge and experience.
Once we open our minds to the possibility of the transcendent, we are immediately faced with a difficult question: How to determine which spiritual experiences and messages seemingly coming from outside ourselves are indeed authentic, and are coming from a positive and authoritative spiritual source? Making this determination is extremely important — and although we won’t always get it right, we should do our best to try.
Part of the challenge is that in most cases “prophecy,” “revelation,” or ideas gleaned from the inner life of the spirit can’t be classified as strictly divine or not. That’s because there’s a lot of gray area between the human mind and the Mind of God. There may be whole worlds that exist in the middle ground, from which numerous sources with various degrees and spheres of spiritual knowledge and wisdom, or the lack thereof, may emanate and penetrate into our own minds — and from there, become subject to our own interpretation.
Catholics, for example, believe in the communion of saints, to whom people may pray for guidance and assistance. Although saintly souls may be aligned with the purposes of God, they are not identical to God, and they carry out their work as individual beings with free will, just as we are. Various religions including Christianity teach that there are many angels, lesser divinities, and spiritual masters who are not the equivalent of the Almighty Creator. Whatever inspiration or communication we may receive from such sources is subject to our own discernment — and I strongly suspect that most spiritual experiences people have are coming from this intermediate level, rather than from the Ultimate Deity.
This may be a large part of the reason why there is so much diversity of religious experiences and ideas. People are hearing from different sources — and although the substance of their communications may overlap significantly, it will be colored by the unique perspective of the source, as well as the recipient.
The communion of saints, also called the cloud of witnesses, and the heavenly host — all of which we could describe as the society of spiritual beings who are somewhat closer to the Divine than we are — they have actual responsibility and agency to help advance the cause of God by working with souls here on earth. Some of them may be better at communicating with us than others. They may employ different strategies and methods. And they might not always agree with each other about how to implement God’s objectives in our world. But in order to remain “employed” in God’s service, so to speak, they must be trying, in their different ways, to bring out the best in us.
This can explain a lot about why different spiritual seekers may feel genuinely inspired or called to believe in somewhat different things — and why, despite our differences, we can often find a great deal of common ground. As Saint Paul wrote, “one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’” — but “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. … For we are co-workers in God’s service,” explains Paul [1 Cor. 3:4-5,9]. And as we know, in any large organization, the CEO must delegate a great deal of authority to executives below the C-Suite. Paul and Apollos, for example, may teach God’s truth in somewhat different ways.
All religions exist only because God permits them to, and all religious teachers are ultimately under God’s authority. The same principle is in effect in both the material and the spiritual worlds. Some co-workers in the corporate body of God may get promoted or demoted, and some may even get fired — at least for a time — according to God’s most perfect judgment. Our task, as humans here on earth, is to do the best we can to figure out which of the religious-sounding voices we hear, both in the flesh and in the spirit, are more accurately and effectively representing God’s truth and the divine plan.
There are clues that we can follow, and one of the most useful clues is when different sources are saying similar things, coming from totally different backgrounds and perspectives. For example, at the time when Jesus was born, both the Hebrews and the Persians were expecting the appearance of a savior. Although they had different religions, they had similar messianic expectations. As I mentioned earlier, that’s the historical basis of the story of the Magi from the East — and it lends truth to the idea of Jesus as the savior of the world.
Today, there are certain key ideas that diverse people feel the Spirit communicating to them. One such idea is the Divine Feminine: that God, who has traditionally been presented as male in the Abrahamic religious traditions, can also relate to us as female — and that the recognition of a gender-balanced Godhead is an important step in humanity’s spiritual evolution. Without seeking it out, I have increasingly come to know people who believe and teach this idea, and who ground their belief at least in part in their own spiritual experiences. I, likewise, have felt inspired to this understanding and believe that I was called by the Holy Spirit to proclaim this truth. I am doing it in the context of my Christian faith, but some other spiritual leaders I know are teaching the same basic idea in the context of other religions, and believe they were equally inspired to the mission.
Another example of an idea that seems to be gaining traction in people’s minds — and which is seemingly being disseminated from the spirit world through diverse sources — is the prophecy that the United States of America will break apart, perhaps in a second civil war. Although the extraordinarily divisive political climate of recent times is undoubtedly contributing to the spread of this idea, I know people who have been expecting it for years, long before it became a mainstream concern, and who came to this belief not as a result of current events or social trends but because of their spiritual experiences and intuition. Most worryingly, I have noticed that people with a wide spectrum of religious views have felt inspired to take this prophecy seriously, and it has appeared in a variety of forms, seemingly independently from one another.
It’s important to keep in mind that prophecies are often given as warnings, not necessarily predictions. Recipients of prophetic warnings are called to do whatever they can to prevent the negative thing from happening, rather than embracing the prophecy as a foreordained outcome. In the case of the future of the United States, perhaps God or the spirit world can see clearly that trends are pointing in a catastrophic direction, and that unless enough people become devoted to fixing what ails this country, an important beacon of human freedom may be lost from the geopolitical landscape.
Consider, then, that there may be other motivations and agencies that can see the same danger, but instead see it as an opportunity — a chance to inflict tremendous damage and suffering on human beings, and to destroy something good and beautiful in the world. Sometimes, when people talk about a coming civil war, for example, those thoughts aren’t coming to them as a benevolent divine warning, but may be coming from their own ego, or even from spiritual forces of darkness. Many people haven’t learned to tell the difference.
Eric Metaxas, an Evangelical Christian leader, recently asserted, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Donald Trump was the true winner of the 2020 presidential election and will be inaugurated to a second term, after which “many will go to jail” for supposedly committing election fraud on behalf of Joe Biden. “I’d be happy to die in this fight,” said Metaxas. “This is a fight for everything. God is with us. Jesus is with us in this fight for liberty.”
Metaxas has even said that people who believe differently about the election are listening to “the voice of the Devil.” And he directly called for civil war, saying, “We need to fight to the death, to the last drop of blood,” for Trump’s quixotic quest to overturn the election results and remain president.
I, for one, feel inspired to work for peace and democracy, not senseless bloodshed. And although people like Eric Metaxas might truly believe that God and Jesus are on their side, I think they are tragically misguided.
In the movie Contact, there’s a memorable scene where astronomers are analyzing the first message received by a radio telescope from extraterrestrials. To everyone’s shock, they discover that the message is television footage of Adolf Hitler. But then, suddenly they realize it makes sense: It was the first TV broadcast that was powerful enough to reach interstellar space. Sometimes what we put out there into the universe will come right back to us.
Maybe that’s why some people believe that God is inspiring them to turn politics into a blood sport — because the channel they’re tapped into is broadcasting from the depths of their own bloodthirsty mind. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Who’s to say that all the spiritual sources that can communicate with us are necessarily good? I doubt very much, for example, that a spiritual being of divine love and light would be egging people on to cause, rather than prevent, a second American civil war — but a being with a negative agenda might do exactly that, while pretending to be God.
This is why it’s so important that we use discernment when seeking to connect with the Source. Our tuner might not always be set to the right channel. We have to judge for ourselves whether the messages we receive are good or evil.
In 1981, a young man from Texas named Vernon Howell had an overwhelming spiritual vision and decided to commit his life to God. He went looking for a church with prophetic leadership and soon joined a small sect of the Adventists that was led by a woman named Lois Roden. A few years earlier, Roden had had a vision of the Holy Spirit in the form of a female angel. She taught that the God of the Bible is both male and female, and published a magazine called Shekinah, exploring issues of gender equality in Judaism and Christianity.
But Vernon Howell began to feel called to become a religious leader himself. With the power of his youthful charisma, he won the support of enough members of the church, and one day, while driving down the road with Lois Roden, they literally threw her out of a truck, as told in the documentary Waco: Madman or Messiah. Howell, who later changed his name to David Koresh, became the new leader of the Branch Davidian sect.
David Koresh continued to commit terrible atrocities in the name of God. Ironically, the successor of a progressive female minister who believed God was calling her to lift up the status of women in the church would be a man who practiced polygamy, even having sexual relations with underage girls, and claiming to be doing so at God’s command. In the end, he perished with his followers in a fiery inferno after a U.S. government raid on his cult compound.
Both Roden and Koresh seem to have honestly believed they were seeking the Source of spiritual truth and acting according to divine guidance. But their spiritual seeking led them down very different paths. Both of them had teachings that were unusual compared to the prevailing religion of the time — but one of them stood up for positive ideas that can advance God’s cause of universal human dignity, while the other one advanced only the burning in his loins.
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test all spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” [1 Jn. 4:1]. Such is the counsel of Saint John the Apostle. And as it is written in the Book of Isaiah, “‘Come, let us reason together,’ says the Lord.” [Isa. 1:18]
Our responsibility is to use mature discernment in seeking guidance from God, evaluating whatever we receive and taking actions that are compatible with eternal virtues and our highest conscience, rather than blind obedience to any suggestion, whether from outside ourselves or from our ego disguising itself as our Lord. This is not always easy — but if we follow the moral teachings of Christ, and his example of love and compassion for everyone, then our errors will be far less severe.
Some two thousand years ago, wise men saw something special in Jesus when he was still just a baby. If we build our spiritual life upon the firm foundation of the Savior, then we can seek truth boldly and be open to consider whatever we may receive from the spiritual world, remaining grounded in a Source that can free us from so much pain and misunderstanding.
Watch on video (starting at 8:00):