Another thing that has struck me as we have done the rounds of Christmas concerts and plays is the fact that the whole Christmas story is built on the concept of God speaking to people. He spoke in different ways. Angels feature in a big way. They appeared to Zechariah and Mary, to Joseph and the shepherds. Then there was the Holy Spirit, coming over people and causing them to prophesy. Zechariah experienced this, and so did Simeon, the man in Jerusalem who met Mary and Joseph in the temple with the baby shortly after he was born, and who was also “moved by the Spirit” to make a pronouncement about this child. There was also the prophetess, Anna, an old lady of 84 years, who spoke about the child in the temple.
Then there were natural phenomena. The wise men appear to have been somehow prompted to journey toward a rising star, which they were convinced would lead them to a newborn king of the Jews. Whether they were Jews or not is not clear, nor is it clear whether they were kings. Magi, I take it, means “wise men”. Whatever the truth of the three wise men (which I take it has been questioned this Christmas by the Archbishop of Canterbury), they were led by a star to Jesus, an action they took in response to some obscure understanding that this was a good thing to do. God speaking again.
Then there were dreams. The wise men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Joseph was commanded in a dream to take the child and escape to Egypt. Later, another dream resulted in Joseph taking his young family back to Israel, where they settled, and where Jesus lived for the remainder of his life on earth.
God speaking. Angels, prophecies, nature, dreams. All rather subjective phenomena, which could surely be interpreted any which way. How did these people know that it was God who was speaking to them? How did they know He was leading them? These are so often the questions that plague us, as we travel our journey through life. My evangelical upbringing taught me not to trust such subjective phenomena, unless of course it was clearly backed up by the written words of the Bible. But these people had much less of the Bible than I do. The wise men, if they were not Jews, may not have even had the old testament writings. But they were convinced of the direction of God. Of the need to go and worship the newborn king. What convinced them?
Despite my evangelical roots, I see now that I have experienced first hand each of these methods of communication from God at some stage or other, and in some cases the experience has changed the direction of my life. Sometimes the Bible has backed up the message. But sometimes the message has been too specific, too personal, for the Bible to be able to speak the same words directly. Of course, none of the messages I have received in these ways have contradicted anything written in the Scriptures. But the conclusions I have drawn from each experience could well have been interpreted in another way, a way that could just as easily exclude God and be written off as odd coincidence.
The Christmas story has been a refreshing confirmation to me that God does speak in these unusual, supernatural ways, and that He has been doing so since time immemorial. The Bible is, and always will be, the foundation of my understanding of the will and purpose of God. But specifics, which affirm my personal relationship with God, often come through vague, supernatural channels which cannot be predicted, anticipated, or formularized. The challenge is to recognize the voice of God when it comes, and to respond appropriately. Not like Zechariah, who said, “How can I be sure of this?” (looking at the natural, which indicated that what he had “heard” was just wishful thinking). But like Mary, who said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”