Hawaii is the most remote place on earth. Nowhere else in the world is a piece of land so far from any other land. About fifteen centuries ago some Polynesian islanders headed out into the open sea with their little boats, and somehow made it to these small islands 2500 miles away. It is incredible that they made it at all. In the 1970’s there was a modern attempt to replicate the journey on similar small watercraft– a 60-foot canoe. The small group perished in a storm at sea after only a couple weeks. By whatever miracle those first settlers got there, they were pretty much left alone for the next twelve centuries.
In 1778 the islands were discovered by Englishman James Cook. When Captain Cook arrived the Hawaiians knew right away just who he was. He was God. The Hawaiians were sure of that because he had a ship larger than any they had ever seen before, and, he had guns and metal tools and pots and pans and mirrors and so much more; and all of that most certainly must have come from the heavens. The Hawaiians had never seen anything like it. What’s more, Captain Cook arrived just as they were celebrating a great feast to the god they called Lono. Therefore, this certainly must have been Lono who had come to visit.
This raises a question: how did those Hawaiians know anything about God? No missionaries had ever been there, and there had not been the meeting of cultures and religions that had always gone on back and forth between places less remote. The Hawaiians were pretty much alone for all those centuries, yet they had their own highly developed religion with priests and holy places and holy days and rituals and festivals and everything else that goes with a religion.
In Romans 1:18-20 Paul describes how God’s invisible qualities, his ‘eternal power and divine nature’ have always been evident to all people since the creation of the world, being clearly seen by all that God has made. This universal knowledge of God has been discovered by all world explorers. No matter where people have been found, no matter how remote, they have all had some concept of God and some kind of religion. No people anywhere have been more remote or more isolated than the Hawaiians, and they too had been trying for centuries to approach and to satisfy their gods. Their knowledge was limited. They were fooled at first even by Captain Cook. But they knew that there had to be someone greater than themselves, and at the direction of the priests they submitted their lives to this greater power, even when that meant death. And it often did mean death because human sacrifice was a big part of the traditional Hawaiian religion. Being selected for sacrifice by the kings or the priests would mean instant death if you were lucky, or it could, at times, mean being sacrificed to the gods by being buried alive. The gods the Hawaiians believed in were harsh and demanding.
In the early 1800’s, Keopuolani was the favorite wife of King Kamahamaha, and thus was the queen of the islands. As a young woman, she became very ill. The priests interpreted this to mean that the gods were angry and must be appeased. Ten men from the community were selected as human sacrifices. They were to be killed, one by one, until the gods were satisfied and they allowed the queen to recover. After the first three men were killed, the gods were apparently appeased, and the queen became well. The other seven men were then allowed to live and return to their wives and children. Such was the religion of the old Hawaiians. If you were selected to be the next human sacrifice, there was nothing you could do. The power of the kings was absolute, and only the priests knew how to appease the gods.
Then came the missionaries– self-righteous and stubborn old New Englanders. They were embarrassed by the scant clothing of the natives (who were dressed for the weather), and the more modest missionaries insisted that the Hawaiians wear for worship what was worn in Massachusetts– black suits and ties, long sleeves and long dresses. The missionaries made many other mistakes, some very damaging to their own purposes. But they did one thing that was very right. They brought to the Hawaiians a fuller knowledge of the God– God that the Hawaiians always knew was there and who they were already worshiping. The missionaries brought to the Hawaiians the knowledge of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who a long time ago had made the most perfect sacrifice for all sin, making the old system of human sacrifice not only unnecessary and obsolete, but absolutely forbidden. And the Hawaiians, beginning with Queen Keopuolani herself, responded positively and enthusiastically to this fuller knowledge of God. Within a generation, a large percentage of the Hawaiians had converted to Christianity. There is so much more to this story, but the human sacrifices were ended and Christ became known as the fullest and truest way to know God. (continued…)
Romans 1:18-20 — The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Isaiah 51:5 — My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.
Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us. Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 45.