When people ask me the question: ‘what made you decide to become a vicar?’ it raises the whole question of how we make the big decisions in life. Are we guided in any way? Does it all just happen by chance or are we in sole control of our destiny? At the beginning of a new year, it’s good to look back and reflect: ‘How did I get here; to where I am today?’ It’s also not a bad idea to think about the future, the decisions I need to make and how am I going to make them.
For the wise men or magi who feature in our gospel reading, (Matthew 2.1-12) they had an early form of sat nav to help them; being guided by a star. This not only determined the course of their journey, but it also led them to an encounter which would have affected the rest of their lives. The events surrounding that road trip have given them a place in history.
Who were these men? Firstly, they were not Jews. They were not drawn to worship the newly born Jesus because they already share his religious background. Rather, they have to make enquiries as to where one who was ‘king of the Jews’ might be born.
Secondly, they were clearly people of means. They had the luxury of time and finance to make a journey of several hundred miles from eastern lands, possibly Iraq, Iran or Saudi Arabia. The bible says nothing of camels, but it is possible they used camels as much of their journey would have been across desert regions. T S Elliot in his evocative poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ speaks of them missing the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbet. He may well not be so far off the mark.
Thirdly, these were clearly men of some education and learning…but not in the balanced analytical sense that we are used to. The word translated wise men is magos in Greek from which we get the other name for them: magi. The word derives from Persian where it has links with Zoroastrianism, a religion in which priests studied the stars. The wise men were more ‘astrologers’ rather than ‘astronomers. They looked to the stars for omens and portents of the future rather than trying to understand the way the universe works like the late Patrick Moore or Professor Brian Cox. If they were around today, they would be more likely writing your horoscope than telling you about the latest star which their telescopes had picked up. Yet in their world, such knowledge was valued.
There has been endless speculation as to what the wise men actually saw. Was it a comet? Was it an unusual alignment of stars? We cannot be sure. What ever it was, it led these men to make a journey first to Jerusalem and then onwards to Bethlehem and the end of that journey was Jesus.
Who or what was really guiding them? At first, it may have seemed that they were just following their learning and their instincts. Looking into the skies they saw something that prompted them to think that a new king was being born to the Jews. But as they travelled, and mindful of where they were headed, they were possibly aware of a greater power, a mind behind the star, even the creator of that star.
Once in Jerusalem, their plight soon comes to the attention of King Herod the great, notorious for his determination to preserve his throne and his succession at any cost. He is as keen as the wise men to find the new born ‘king’ but for other far more sinister reasons. The wise men want to pay him homage. The king wants him dead. The chief priest and scribes are sought, the religious leaders of the Jewish people. What guidance might they give? They go to the scriptures, to the old testament and the prophet Micah. ‘And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are by no means least in the land of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ (Matthew 2.6 after Micah 5.2) Now, it is the bible that gives guidance rather than the star. Gentiles are being drawn, led by the Jewish scriptures to Jesus the king, the Christ. Motives differ. The King wants to kill the child while the wise men come to bring homage, yet it is the word of God guiding them.
Both the scripture and the star guide the wise men the final five miles to the goal of their journey. They find the place where the child is and offer gifts full of sacred meaning. But they are not done with being guided. We hear no more of the star, but it is a dream that warns them not to return to Herod and tell him the whereabouts of the baby but to return to their own country via another route. It is not the only dream which guides people around the events of the first Christmas. Dreams occur many times in scripture as way in which God prompts and reveals himself. The same has been the experience of many Christians since some famous and others obscure.
This story of the wise men that concludes every nativity play and which the church in the west remembers on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th is all about guidance. Behind the star, the voice of scripture and the dreams we can see by the eye of faith God guiding and directing the wise men from paying homage to the stars to worshiping the maker of those same stars as he lay in his mother’s arms.
Does God still guide us today and if so how? I believe that he guided me to be a vicar. There was no star or any other portent in the heavens but God guided me through conversations with youth leaders, other clergy and friends to consider the options. Doors opened which could have remained shut which took me through the church processes of selection. There were times when particular passages from the bible spoke to me and led me in that direction. I applied to an organisation to do some interim work which took me to South Wales and there has been a strong sense of calling to work in Wales ever since. Indeed, attempts to find posts in the Church of England have always come to nothing.
There is nothing dramatic in this story of calling. It involves the counsel of others, the bible, prayer and reflection and the opening and closing of doors. But God’s guidance is not just for vicars. In fact, God may well be guiding us and looking out for us in ways that we scarcely imagine. In the first session of the ‘Start’ course, one of a number used today to help people understand the Christian faith, participants are encouraged to draw a line on a piece of paper. They then mark some of the good things which have happened in their lives above the line and the less good things below the line. It helps them to see how their life has shaped up and many begin to realise that actually God may well have been looking out for them when they weren’t especially looking for him.
You may well be aware of ‘Footsteps’. This little piece speaks of two sets of prints in the sand, God walking with us in our lives. Then just one set. Has God deserted? No, that was when I carried you. One of my sons in law was recounting recently how he nearly got lured into the Mormon sect at a vulnerable point in his life. Now as a practising Christian he reflected that God was protecting him at that point in his life.
As we all look to a new year, lets consider how God might be guiding us. While he may well have had his hand on your life when you were not aware, how much better to seek his guidance especially when you face difficult or complex situations. The bible is full of references to the guidance of God. Let’s close with this one from Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist who knew experienced God’s guiding hand in the most unexpected of ways. ‘…God will give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and guide our feet into the way of peace’. (Luke 1.79)