It is a remarkable thing that the religious leaders of Judaism knew the Scriptures so deeply and yet were so unaware of the birth of their Messiah. They, who had been schooled deeply in the promises of God, and who had longed for their Rescuer for so long, missed His coming. Why? Perhaps they had re-cast the vision of the Messiah so profoundly that they were unable to discover a vivid imagination of what God wanted. Their assumptions and presuppositions forced out the reality of God’s immanent promise. They missed His arrival. They were looking at the front door, expecting a warrior king, with power, authority and pomp, whilst a baby, clothed in rags and hidden in obscurity was carried in the back door, (He could not even carry Himself, for goodness sake). They had their eyes on a throne room. He arrived in a plain ordinary place where people and animals shared their shelter. They awaited the Messiah of Israel, He was the Saviour of the World.
The wise, learned and literate men of Israel knew where the Messiah should be born, they were able to tell Herod when he asked. But they were not sufficiently convinced of what they knew to orientate their lives around it. Their knowledge had no impact on their imagination. They waited in Jerusalem, knowing the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Were they jaded? Were they too busy? Were they so focussed on their knowing that they did not have expectancy? Where they so culturally conditioned that they could not see the possibility? How did they miss the star?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be bornMatthew 2:1-4, NRSV
The Wise Men left everything and followed the whisper. They were deeply moved, physically led by the possibility of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. They were probably men whose Jewish descendants had remained in Persia after the end of the exile. Their Jewish heritage meant that they too understood some of the yearning of Israel. They longed for rescue, just as the scribes did. What was the difference? The Magi were willing to pursue the rumour. They were willing to chase the whisper. The star was enough. They responded. They pursued. They followed.
Perhaps it is the fact that the Magi were deeply impacted by exile? As a man who lived away from Northern Ireland for over thirty years before returning, I know that my connection to this island, my sense of rootedness and place, was strengthened by my separation. My yearning for it grew over the decades. The very distance between me and there became a magnet. My return to Northern Ireland in 2018 left many people confused I think; not least those whom I loved in the church I left and the friendships I cherished. Some of them have never forgiven me. Yet I could not let my deep love for them be stronger than my desire for God and to be where He wanted me to be. The magi must have left many people confused as they left their homeland to follow a whisper. Wisdom is not doing what everyone else thinks is right. It is following the whisper of God in your soul, with attendant confirmations and signs around you and being willing to live with the consequences of it.
And the scribes? They were not in exile, but they were in oppression. I think perhaps that oppression looked like at least two things, but they could only see one. They could see the oppression of the Romans around them. This became the dominant picture in their heads and therefore it shaped their theological and spiritual expectation. They became a remnant, their cultural identity a fortress into which they retreated. Their separation became important for the wrong reasons. They were afraid. The second oppression was the cause, but they could not see it. They became hostages to their past rather than carriers of their story. They became so caught up in what they had been that they lost the ability to enjoy the freedom of who they were. Their imagination and expectation was replaced with traditionalism and legalism. They became intransigent and unmovable. They were so convinced of their rectitude that they became stuck. God would come to them, but they would not go to Him.
What good is all of our ‘knowing’ if it does not move us? Which is better, a little understanding that draws us into the purposes of God or a lot of understanding that does not move us at all? We are so familiar with the Story of the Incarnation, with Christmas – but does it move us? Are we willing to be drawn into the mystery and beauty of it all again this year? Are we ready to celebrate the Incarnation yet, to fully enter it? Advent gives us this gift. It immerses us again the in the story of the irruption of God into our world in the form of His Son. It reminds us that God’s movement toward us also enables our movement toward God. His invitation requires our response.
I think, perhaps, I am too often like the scribes rather than the magi. I convince myself of my knowledge, but it does not move me. I am unwilling to follow the whisper. I do not want this to be true, but I think perhaps it is, and it is true more often than I would like. My tradition, my culture, my tribe, my perspective – wall of these ‘mys’ become too powerful in me. If I am not careful, my life becomes too centred on my surety and not centred enough on God’s possibility.
To follow the whisper of God, I must ensure that I am listening attentively. I can learn to do that in the noise of life, but I must be intentional. I must follow the whisper. This Advent, as we walk the journey toward Christmas Day and the celebration of the Incarnation, I invite you to consider, with me, ways in which we are willing to follow God’s whisper and ways in which we are not.
(c) Malcolm J. Duncan (Advent 2019)