The wise men are some of the oddest characters in the Bible. They are almost out of place. They are from a culture that is alien to the Bible. They are in possession of knowledge, of a kind and a quality that makes them seem, to ordinary folk, like magicians. Their careful study of the phenomena of the universe has led them to conclude that now is the moment when a special ruler is being born among the Jews. Their observations, and their knowledge have led them to a correct conclusion, as far as it goes.
Natural knowledge can lead lead us towards God. Observing the world around us, and the events that take place, can lead us to a belief that there is a God. Very many of us, and possibly most of our neighbour believe in “God” because, given all that there is, “there must be something.” Many, perhaps most people perhaps, will say that the believe in God. Possibly the majority of people have an assumption that something like God must exist. There is perhaps such a thing as a “natural” faith. A kind of “faith” that is inherent to being human, and living in a world. And there is certain something called “natural theology” That is the kind of theology where we start with what we know, the world around us, the people in it, and how everything works and interacts, and by a series of logical steps work towards an understanding of God. It is process that says: if the world is like this, what sort of God must be behind it? Like wise men travelling from the east we can follow a star in the hope of finding God
The Wise Men leave their contemplations in the east, and they come to Jerusalem. The trouble is that the wise men arrive in Jerusalem. Given their observations, and given their knowledge of the world, this might seem like the obvious and natural place to go in search of the king of the Jews. Little do they realise just how dangerous, and potentially disastrous is the mistake they have made. Herod is the last person in the world to welcome the good news which the wise men have observed in the stars.
Our natural faith is all very well. People will tell you, “it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something.” Or they will tell you that, “we all believe in the same God really, and we don’t need a church to that.” But unfortunately there is much that might mislead and misdirect us. Not least there is what we already think we know. And there is all our own longing and wishfulness, which often we are unaware of. We “know” things about God, a series of qualities which we know God must possess. They are a series of absolutes: God is all knowing, everliving, all seeing, and of course: all powerful! And we know what power looks like. So we assume God’s power must be like the power we know about, only extended infinitely. God can get anything done that God wants done. And then our wishfulness and our longing kicks in. And we start to assume that what God wants to happen is what we want to happen. Very soon, with this natural faith and natural theology, we have made a God in our own image and to our own liking. We could end up in Jerusalem talking to someone in power like Herod. And miss the encounter with God we are looking for altogether!
It is the Scriptures that redirects them and us to Bethlehem. What God’s power consist of really is having inexhaustible opportunity to bring about the end God is looking for. God can even use the dishonourable and evil intentions of his opponents to achieve the outcome God is looking for. Herod is not looking for God. Herod wants to destroy any threat, however small and unlikely, to his authority. Be he does know who to ask and where to look for the answers. The star has brought the wise men so far, but it is only scripture that can take them to their destination.
There is a “natural” knowledge of God, but it is extremely limited. It requires that knowledge to be retold through the story of scripture for us to be led to the true and living God. In the first instance it is prophecy who directs the wise men to the place where what they are seeking is to be found. And it is prophecy that continues to direct us to where and how God acts. It is prophecy that identifies this story: Christmas and the wise men and everything that follows, as the story of God’s action. And it is that story, the gospel, the story of Christ that reshapes our understanding and redirects our journeying, away from the god that we might make for ourselves, and towards the God who is alive and is acting for us in Christ. Like the wise men we are redirected to Bethlehem and to the child who born there and to the God who is true in that way of telling.
When the wise men have found the child they are overjoyed and they worship. The scripture direct the wise men to the right place. They find what they are looking for. When they have been directed appropriately, by the scriptures, they find themselves in the presence of what their hope and trust in their knowledge and observation was leading them to.
The strangeness of this scene is that the wise men are able to identify in a child and his mother what they are seeking. And their response is twofold; Joy and worship!
The reason “natural theology” doesn’t, in the end work, is that God is strange. God is not as we expect. God isn’t where we might look for him. God is a king but could we see the ruler of everything as a helpless baby in the arms of his mother? We might try to say we can believe in God without a church. But we can’t recognise the real God without the story which the church is telling. Because God isn’t what we would naturally expect. But the whole purpose of the church is to usher us into the place where we can encounter and recognise God and respond appropriately. Like the wise men who find themselves in the presence of the infant Jesus, the church’s purpose is to lead us into the house where God’s living presence is, and allow us to respond with joy and worship.
In a way this story seems to end with a kind of anti-climax, the wise men return home. In any encounter with God it is tempting to want to hold on to it. We could. with the song, “wish it could be Christmas every day.” The temptation for the wise men was perhaps to stay and become part of God’s people where they found Jesus. But the wise men don’t become part of Israel. They return home, carefully avoiding Herod on the way back. They go home to become outposts, witnesses, to the joy they have experienced. Joy is the vital gift that God gives at Christmas. The Christ is born, that God is with us, is good news, it is a reason to rejoice. That joyfulness is our testimony. Our journey towards God, directed by the story of scripture, leads us into an encounter with God in Jesus Christ. That encounter prompts our joyful response. The point is. we don’t stay in Church basking in the warm joyful glow of the scene in the house with Mary and the child Jesus. But we take that joy back to where we came from. Herod is still out there doing his worst. But like the wise men we are to become outpost of joy, reminding the world that it is not Herod who is king, but Jesus, so that our joy brings hope to the world.
Following the Star and the Scriptures by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0