I am forever fascinated by the wise men of Matthew 2. Their surprise entry into the nativity story bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh has secured them an eternal place in Christian discourse and the cultural imagination of Christmas cards and school nativity plays. The most appealing and intriguing side to the wise men for me, is that they are seekers. From the east, the wise men follow a star in search of something significant. But what? A king? The meaning of life? Nothing is known about these men other than they search, and when initially arriving in the wrong place (Jerusalem), they take further direction towards Bethlehem and continue searching until they finally find what they had been looking for, and worship before him (Matthew 2.11).
I find this inspiring as the biblical witness is so keen on presenting one’s experience with God as a kind of active journey of discovery: ‘You will seek the LORD and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul’ (Deuteronomy 4.29); ‘Ask and it will be given to you. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Seek and you will find’ (Matthew 7.7).
It is significant too that these wise men are exotic foreigners from the east. This is an important clue early in the Gospel that, with the coming of Jesus, there is the possibility of salvation for those outside of the Israelite community. In Matthew 2, the wise men may be contrasted to another outsider – Herod, who is presented as a kind of foolish foreign ruler like others in the Bible (Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Ahasuerus). Unlike Herod who is unable to adapt to the coming of the new king called Jesus and reacts violently to the perceived threat to his power (Matthew 2.16), the wise men are shown positively as people on a journey towards something previously unknown. They are searching.
As foreigners journeying towards some form of truth, I think that Matthew presents the wise men as an example for the people of God to follow. And, following this line of thought, it might just be that we can learn something about seeking from those outside of our own Christian faith.
As such, I would like to introduce the ancient Jewish practice of midrash into this Christian reflection. Midrash involves a deep searching of the scriptures to create fresh meaning for the current age. The ancient rabbis’ strong belief in the eternal and meaningful nature of divinely-inspired scripture led them to search every word and how it was used or spelled across different sections of the Bible. They made endless connections between biblical characters and events, always with a view to answering the question ‘how do we know from scripture that God is still with us today?’ In dark times when God seemed hidden from the people’s experience, scripture provided crucial ways of demonstrating how the divine presence had been and continued to be with the people. Essentially, midrash seeks to close the gap between an ancient text and the current time, incorporating each new generation into one continuous divine story.
While not suggesting that everyone become some sort of midrash scholar, I do find the approach incredibly refreshing as it recognises that the experience of faith by necessity involves searching. Why? Because real life experience tells us that God’s presence is not always clearly felt. There are times when we feel the divine presence with us and that is a wonderful thing, but between those mountaintop experiences seem to come many days… months… years where God is hard to find. In such times there is relief in acknowledging that faith is an exercise in seeking. Somehow, it is reassuring to consider God, in a sort of divine mystery, does not leave us, but may at times withdraw or ‘hide God’s face’ to lead us forwards in search of a deeper relationship (e.g. Isaiah 8.17; 45.15; Psalm 13.1; 51.9). As Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich observed: ‘It pleases God a great deal if the soul never ceases to search’. And what better place to search than the scriptures where the intricacies of the relationship between God and humanity are expressed in poetry and prose over many pages and many hundreds of years in numerous countries. What a help this could be to us as we seek God during times of experiencing both divine presence and perceived absence!
Seeking God in scripture is not a case of finding a verse that reassures us (The LORD is my shepherd… Psalm 23.1) or tells us not to do something (Don’t eat shellfish…Lev. 11.12). The search is not quick or easy in this way because it involves our very real life experiences that may require significant time and effort to fathom. Also, we are not seeking words… but the Word. We are not hoping to find out about God but to find God. We are not interested in historical events and ancient poetry for their own sakes (as interesting as such things may be) but in discovering how such ancient wisdom will assist our contemporary experience. We want to meet God as we read and we want God to meet us through the words. Just like the ancient Jewish rabbis, our hope is surely to join in with the ancient ongoing story.
And so, remembering the wise men for a moment. Their search for God in the form of the baby Jesus was long and took them out of their country. It involved wrong turns (such as the visit to Herod) and presumably took a great deal of effort. Further, the wise men followed the star: one light leading towards another, the true light that had come into the world enlightening everyone (John 1.9). Our own journeying through the scriptures to find God might also be described as following a star or a light of a certain kind. Psalm 19.8 describes the teaching of God as ‘radiant, giving light to the eyes’, and again ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Psalm 119.105; see also Proverbs 6.23). Thus, like the wise men’s star, these words lead us forward revealing the way to the light of life.
There are many practical ways in which this may be apparent but first it must be said that committing to reading the Bible is a vital step forward. Although the Bible is not God, and an idol must not be made of it; the divine-human relationships recorded by authors inspired by the Holy Spirit can certainly lead us to a greater understanding of the divine character alongside a deeper and more vivid experience of God. Looking at how others have responded to God (and how God has responded to them) in various instances helps to place oneself into the on-going biblical story as it becomes apparent that, although separated by thousands of years, different languages and cultures; there are numerous commonalities in how a relationship with God may be expressed and experienced.
o You might be inclined to take time over a short passage of scripture, reading several times and reflecting deeply on the words and what they mean to you personally in that moment.
o If a biblical narrative reminds you of something you have read previously in the scriptures, follow-up on that connection and make a note of it. Where did you read that word before? When was there similar characters? Where was there a similar message?
o Try to remain with the discomfort of reading a biblical passage that you do not understand immediately, or that makes you question the actions of God and other characters. Let this tension lead you to reflect upon what you believe to be the character of God and the required actions/attitude of the people of God today. How might what you have read in the Bible fit into these ideas – maybe it does not fit at all!
These types of practices get us used to entering the world of scripture. Over time we will find ourselves recalling biblical events in connection with our contemporary lives. We will find our life experience becomes somehow intertwined with the biblical narrative the more time we spend there. And this is when God begins to meet us, and we meet God, when we take the time to seek, when our lived reality meets the scripture’s living truth guiding us towards God*.
The wise men found what they were searching for – they had their epiphany – by following a light that led to the true light. Our experiences of a lifetime of faith involve many seasons of feeling both the divine presence and hiddenness. Searching the scriptures can help us to locate God, especially in those dry times when God feels hidden from us. And there, by entering the ongoing biblical story which tells of myriad divine-human interactions, we may have our own epiphany, bowing in worship before Christ the Word made flesh in the great realisation that the one whom we have sought has been with us all along.
*I borrowed this phrase from Serene Jones, ‘Inhabiting Scripture, Dreaming Bible’ in W. P. Brown (ed.) Engaging Biblical Authority (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 78.